Web searching died the day they invented SEO

The truth is out there but you'll never find it


Something for the Weekend, Sir? You can find anything on the internet apart from the specific thing you're looking for.

No wonder the boffins at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center are bigging up the enormity of the task of decoding data from its recently rediscovered zombie satellite. They probably did a web search for the old system and came up with a blank.

Horror of horrors, this means they'll have to reverse-engineer the whole thing. What a nightmare. I mean, no one programs any more, they just nick code snippets off Github and for the rest throw in a heap of lard-arsed libraries. Now they'll have to recreate it all from scratch.

Hang on, though. Surely, surely someone somewhere at some point saved references to the necessary source code in a document, and surely these ended up in a digital repository that can be accessed on the internet. Why can't they find it?

I imagine they found references to references. They probably unearthed news stories about the satellite, along with images, timelines, background information and so on. But not the program itself.

I repeat: you can find anything on the internet apart from the specific thing you're looking for. It's Dabbsy's Principal Law of Web Search.

Sure, I can find links generally related to what I'm hunting very quickly. Internet searching has never been so easy or reliable as it is now. However, I always seem to end up wading through stuff that's generally related to the prize I'm after, rather than the prize itself.

Surely the internet is big enough to contain all human intelligence. So why is it so difficult to find precisely the right thing when you need it? Truth or otherwise, as the gender-pay-imbalanced Mulder might say, it must be out there.

Perhaps I'm not searching the internet properly. This might be a reflection on my inadequate search skills. Like the public at large, I have grown lazy with unrefined web searches. Operators? Nah. Tags? Maybe next time. Quote marks? Such a pain. Boolean? Do me a favour.

Of course, another reason for it being so difficult to find exactly what you want could be because the internet is big enough to contain all human unintelligence. This fogs the search results with bollocks created by people who should never have been allowed near a wooden spoon let alone a computer.

It's a far cry from the strange old days when it was possible to draw a representation of the interconnections between principal internet sites on a large sheet of paper. Even at the beginning of the 1990s, the computer magazine I worked on at the time cover-mounted a giant fold-out poster optimistically labelled Map of the Internet. Bless.

In those days, you knew where your WWW search (as we called it) was going and if you couldn't find what you were looking for, it meant it wasn't there.

This was followed by a golden age in which the internet was still regarded as a sparkly wonderland from which all unimaginable things could spring. If you bought a book from the fledgling Amazon or a pair of second-butt snowboarding pants on eBay, you were ranked by friends and neighbours alongside Harry bleeding Potter in conjuring skills. Hell, if you simply managed to get an entire page on the Boo.com casual clothing retail website to fully load into Netscape using your dial-up access in under half an hour, you were Doctor fucking Strange.

There used to be a running gag in the early Noughties episodes of Nickelodeon cartoon series The Fairly Oddparents. Every time the main character Timmy Turner was caught with something weird or magical given to him by his fairy godparents, he'd be asked "Where did you get that?" and he'd respond "Er... internet".

It was a time when you could attribute/blame the internet for anything you wanted and people would believe it.

"Nice designer shades!"

Thank you. I got them off the internet.

"Nasty cold you got there, pal."

Yeah, I got it off the internet.

What we lost in exclusivity in the following years was surely made up for in terms of ease and speed of access. And, of course, search engines got a whole lot better.

That's the official line. I happen to disagree. What got better was search engine optimisation. With the aid of clever phrasing by content marketers, this made it possible for only vaguely relevant content to appear to search engines as the exact thing you're looking for even though it isn't – the very opposite, in fact, to what SEO was supposed to achieve in the first place.

Rather than showing what you're searching for, search results show you links that marketeers want you click on instead. The whole point of SEO today is to direct you to content you don't want and didn't ask for.

As a result, I go hunting for a little bit of old zombie satellite code and all I can find are 47,000 links to George A Romero video clips and Walking Dead fan pages. Ho hum, does anyone have any old Fortran manuals?

"Hey, is that a printed software manual? Is it... ring-bound?"

Yup, I got it off the internet.

Youtube Video

Tom Cruise (that'll confuse SEO)
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He is not and has never been a programmer but he used to pride himself in his internet search skills. He says as internet searching got easier, it got harder. No, that doesn't make a lot of sense to us, either.

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