Scrutinizing The Search Engines

How do search engines work, exactly?  When you type in your poorly worded, off the top of your head inquiry, how do they sift through mountains of data and come up with responsive information — and then rank that information, to boot?

Staffers at the Federal Trade Commission looked at Google and concluded that Google skews its search results to favor its own services and offerings at the expense of its rivals.  Among other things, the report concluded that Google modified its ranking criteria so that Google options fared better and that Google “scraped” content — whatever that means — from other websites as part of its effort to favor Google offerings.

IMG_4976I suppose I should be irate about the notion of Google jimmying search results in its favor, but it’s hard to get too exercised about it.  I really don’t care about how the rankings are determined or presented, nor do I want to get into the boring details of search algorithms.  How many people automatically click on the top option their search produces?  I don’t.  I’m perfectly happy to skip the sites that have paid for priority and the cached options and scroll through until I find what I’m looking for.

The search engine world is a black box to most of us non-techies, but there seems to be a lot of games being played, by everyone.  How often have you done a software update on your computer and found that your default search engine option has mysteriously changed from Google to, say, Yahoo as part of the process?  That’s happened to me, and I assume that Yahoo has paid for that modification, figuring that most people won’t go through the hassle of changing the default back to Google or Yelp or whatever it was before.  And most people won’t.

The reality is, most of us don’t care which search engine gets used, or how the search engine produces its results, or whether those results are faithfully based on objective criteria.  We just want to get instantaneous answers to our questions.  I’m more interested in how Google comes up with those funky substitutes for the letters in its name that recognize special occasions, like today’s colorful flower-based nod to the official beginning of spring.

An Unfortunate Air Of Plausibility (Cont.)

It turns out that the “President Obama wants to pay your utility bills” scam isn’t the only government-related scam making the rounds these days.

Now, crooks are taking advantage of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in a ruse to try to get our personal information.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, the scammers are calling people, saying they are from the government, and asking for personal information — Social Security numbers, Medicare ID numbers, and credit card and bank account numbers — that they say is needed to implement the law.  The FTC says that if someone from the government calls and asks for your personal information, you should recognize it as a scam and hang up.

Of course, it’s not exactly far-fetched that the government would contact you about your personal information.  We routinely provide such information whenever we file tax returns or complete other forms that the federal government requires from us.  And since the Affordable Care Act says the government will be paying even more attention to our economic activities — such as whether we have appropriate health care insurance — and our health care usage, it’s not implausible that the feds might need our bank account or credit card information.

The FTC says with confidence that the government won’t be making unsolicited requests for information by phone — but isn’t it going to need to collect such information at some point, in order for the law to work?  What happens when an official-looking letter to your home address that purports to come from the federal government asks you fill out a form that provides your confidential financial and personal information, including where you current have your health insurance, and instructs you to mail it to some random P.O. Box in Kansas City, Missouri?  Should we just crumple it up and throw it away?