The cookie jar just gets more enticing

Preferred Placement
September 15, 2000

It was the web's own payola scandal. Anyone using the AltaVista search engine to look for "cars" in the spring of 1999 would have found a company called AutoNation consistently at the top of the results list. AltaVista had always used an automatic algorithm to rank websites according to their relevance, and there was no indication that the policy had changed. In fact, AutoNation had bought the top position, and its prominent listing was a disguised advertisement. The revelation damaged AltaVista's business, and the company swiftly abandoned the practice. But the episode raised political issues that will return if, say, maps of cyberspace take over from text-based search engines.

The Preferred Placement symposium, held in Amsterdam in October 1999, examined the politics of search engines, consumer profiling, recommender systems and cyberspace maps. This collection of nine papers is edited by Richard Rogers, a design and media research fellow at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht.

Rogers dismisses the notion that the web is a level playing field. The wealthy, the powerful, the clever and the unscrupulous are adept at attracting surfers to their sites. Rogue websites impersonate genuine sources and hijack their traffic. Surfers must always "read between the links".

Recommendation, as Rogers points out, has been part of the web since the very first hyperlink was made. But whom do you trust? The online bookseller Amazon tells you what other customers with similar tastes are reading. Many people appreciate these recommendations, which they feel come from unbiased fellow readers. But Rogers considers that Amazon uses the technique "to foist learned preferences and assumed profiles on the surfer-consumer".

Profiling has an interesting history. Psychologists use the term when analysing the personality of a crime's unknown perpetrator. On the internet, profilers are less interested in your criminal behaviour and more interested in what you might be persuaded to buy. As Greg Elmer says, profiling is used to produce "not only probable transgressors but, increasingly, probable consumers".

The tracking device that lets marketeers follow your movements and profile your interests is a small electronic file called a "cookie". Many sites plant cookies on our computers as we surf the web. Often the cookies do not come from the site you chose to visit, but from an online advertising company such as DoubleClick or NetGravity. These companies may not know your name, but they can customise the banner ads you see.

It is possible to refuse cookies or block them entirely, but many website features (including the "shopping carts" on retail sites) stop working. Most people just leave their browser at its default settings and let the cookies pour in.

Elmer suggests we have a psychological need to profile criminals because we fear the unknown. But this hardly explains the corporate thirst for information about consumer habits. Are we to believe that an internet user who refuses cookies is as frightening to a marketing executive as a serial killer on the loose? Had a couple of business-school academics been invited to the symposium, some more mundane explanations might have been offered.

Lucas Introna and Helen Nissenbaum are concerned that millions of web pages remain unindexed by the search engines. They believe the public has a right to know how search-engine operators select and rank the sites in their indexes.

A certain amount is known. In-links and out-links improve rankings. The THES website, for example, has fewer links than its equivalent in the much-larger US market, The Chronicle of Higher Education . So if you would like to see The THES rise up the search-engine results lists, link your site to ours. Money still talks. "Yahoo sells prominence indirectly by allowing web owners to pay for express indexing. This allows them to move ahead in the six-month queue." And you thought National Health Service waiting lists were bad.

Companies can also buy keywords for banner ads. On some search-engine sites you can hardly mention a country without being offered a flight to the place. But readers seeing a banner ad know their attention has been bought. The distinction between editorial and advertising - which print publishers guard so fiercely - remains clear.

The future of web searching and recommendation could be in maps. Martin Dodge presents a gallery of the ingenious and visually striking techniques that have been developed for mapping cyberspace in two or three dimensions. At last an objective guide to the web? Do not count on it. Maps of the world are subject to political spin: Mercator magnifies Greenland; the Peters projection favours Africa. Maps of cyberspace also have their hidden agendas. Now imagine if the web's map-makers offered preferred placement: it would be as if the Ordnance Survey took payola. Preston could move to Paris, East Anglia could acquire mountains, and Aberdeen could buy itself a Mediterranean climate.

Tony Durham is web editor, The THES .

Preferred Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web

Editor - Richard Rogers
ISBN - 90 6617 243 6
Publisher - Jan van Eyck Akademie Editions
Price - £25.00
Pages - 192

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