January 22, 2004

Why there should be more scholarly and scientific weblogs

I have to admit that the folks who complain about "blognoise" in Google's page rank and similar measures have got a bit of a point. Checking on our referrer logs, as I do from time to time, I discovered a few minutes ago that Language Log provides the #1 page returned by a query for "philosophy lessons." I yield to no one in my admiration for John McWhorter's writing, and his post on false exoticism in linguistic description is a gem, but should it really be Google's top guess for a source of philosophical instruction?

I've already pointed out that Geoff Pullum's bit of deadpan humor about universities named after linguists is the top answer to the question "who is Harvard University named after?" We also come out #1 for "psycholinguistics career", "what does outcall massage mean?", "bush mispronunciations", "talking seals", "cold reading", "same procedure as every year", "CPEB", "'new yorker' judicial nominations", "invention of pickle", "words made up by mistake", "Edward Sapir's beliefs" and "sic meaning", #2 for "causes of speech impediments", "italics rule grammar", "right-justified", "different kinds of human races", "strange alphabets" and "history of emo", #3 for "ordinary language philosophy", "separation of subject and verb", "how to say English sentences in French" and "Pete Rose's sorry",#4 for "examples of sarcasm", #5 for "how new words are added to the english language", and so on. Except for the Harvard thing, all of these examples are from searches conducted within the past couple of hours -- at this point, we get about 250 visitors referred from search engines per day. [Note -- since the search indexes are constantly updated, your results may vary from what is asserted above, which reflected the results as of roughly 11:30 p.m. on 1/21/2004].

My point in listing these examples is not to trash the search algorithms, which on balance are doing a great job of helping people to find the information they are looking for (along with the odd serendipitous gem from our little enterprise here, of course). Instead, I'd like to draw my colleagues' collective attention to the fact that we scholars and scientists are missing an opportunity here. Aside from all the personal and discipline-internal benefits of weblogs, they're a wonderful way to reach the public at large! This is especially true for the general audience of high school and college students, who spend a lot of time online and rely heavily on search engines. And the more mutually-connected weblogs a discipline maintains, the higher the average rank of its postings will be.

This is not a proposal to subvert search engines by having researchers engage in google-bombing on a grand scale. On the contrary, my point is that we have a chance for our voices to be heard by the public at large, on the topics we know and care about, without journalistic intermediaries. Most of us spend much of our time communicating with one another on these topics anyhow, by email, in mailing lists, and so on. All we need to do is to move some (more) of this activity into a slightly different medium.

I'll close with a quote from the Wired article I started with, suggesting that

the trick to achieving prominent search rankings is fairly straightforward: "update frequently and provide good content."

If you're looking for a philosophy lesson, you could do worse.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 22, 2004 12:10 AM