If a Fact Can’t be Found On the Internet, Does It Exist?

In their recent announcement, the folks at GoogleTV told us they’d make TV programs easier to find by searching the Internet. Of course this is an absurd idea. And this led me to ponder how little advancement we’ve seen with Internet search in the past decade.

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here” Search reality is complex – and I’m becoming convinced it has to be. A lot of very bright, innovative minds are working hard to make it easier. But they’re not having much luck. Remember all the effort Microsoft put into Bing? It’s doing okay. But every time I’ve used it I’ve found that it doesn’t give me any better results than Google. I don’t blame Microsoft. But I think the experience suggests there’s a bigger problem with making the internet our encyclopedia than anyone’s talking about.

What I find is that when the answers are well established online, then I find them right away. But when they aren’t, I fall off the cliff. And at the bottom of the cliff we find the vast internet wilderness. (If I was more dedicated, maybe I would knock off Dante and create 9 circles of internet hell and populate them with computer industry celebs.)

This has been a week of internet wilderness for what should be simple. I’ve been trying to track down an accurate source for a quote regularly attributed to Winston Churchill. (“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”) It’s a great quote, speaks volumes, and features Churchill’s wry sense of the world.

I’ve been trying to track down it’s source – which you’d think would be easy with an online search. Google and Bing give me page after page of sites listing the quote. But nowhere do I find a source for the quote – neither from quote sites nor businesses using the quote.

So I check Churchill.org and WikiQuotes searching for the quote. Nada – nothing. I’m empty handed. I discover that someone has posted a query on WikiAnswers seeking a source for the quote. The query remains unanswered. Digging even deeper, I go to a specialized quote website and review discussion boards. Nothing so far.

This is where online search reality sets in. Because now I’m concerned that this quote might be invented. There is an amazing uniformity in how the quote appears online (usually quotes get butchered as they’re passed around). And it is perfectly constructed to serve as the introductory quote for a very large number of strategic companies. And strategic companies and consultancies are where the quote is used most frequently.

If these hunches are right, I’m guessing someone took a real Churchill quote and twisted it to fit their strategic needs. This might have been accidental – maybe someone read a true Churchill quote but remembered it incorrectly. They wrote down the great one they remembered and that’s the quote that’s passing so quickly around the internet (memory is a dangerous tool sometimes).

With my search unresolved, where does this leave me? A couple of thoughts…

If something is well established on the internet, it’s easy to find. If it’s not established, then it’s hard to find. Makes sense. But what leads to well established things on the internet? Either a passionate amateur interest or (most often) a business interest. It’s a scary to think that the entries in an encyclopedia would primarily feature information that matches one of these two criteria.

If a fact can’t be found on the internet, does it really exist? When it comes to truth, it’s sad that this insidious idea may be making inroads in our schools, our news organizations, and our world. I posted a note commenting on a blog the other day noting 6 facts from the last decade. A flamer responded that he wouldn’t believe the facts because I didn’t give internet references for them. Yikes.

Let’s hope it’s merely intellectual laziness that confuses an absence of information with accurate definition of truth.

Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

2 Responses to If a Fact Can’t be Found On the Internet, Does It Exist?

  1. Robert Groves says:

    Hi Doug,

    Good post! Search is a complex beast indeed! Don’t be too hard on it though, it really is still in its infancy.

    I think Microsoft’s Bing team deserves a little credit if not only because they were/are trying to innovate while Google, the progenitors of search, seemed to have been resting on their laurels (or more likely loosing focus due to having their hands in too many other areas). I think Bing was a wake up call for Google. It may have been a small one, but a wake up call nonetheless.

    Given the current level of technology, algorithms only get you so far in the categorization and indexing of all data on the internet, especially the “deep web.” [1] This is a problem that the “librarians” of the digital age will have to tackle, curation of mass amounts of data.

    When in comes to data on the web, general and specialized knowledge are likely to be more searcher friendly than obscure knowledge. The obscure is a problem for two reasons. The first is that it proves difficult to find such data. The second is that even if it can be found, the searcher is still left with a more difficult problem, trying to discern an obscure fact from a fictional detail. When there is not enough data to make an informed/educated decision, people usually mold what data they find to suit their own needs.

    Getting back to your main point, all we can hope for is that our teachers, media pundits and leaders will teach and set the example that instead of saying “I’ve found this on the internet so it must be true” we should instead be asking, “I’ve heard/read/seen this (anywhere, but I suppose especially on the internet), is this true?” and then taking action to find out for ourselves.

    I’m of the opinion that too many people take what they hear/read/see at face value and tend to eschew research or thought of their own in favor of convenience.

    As for the elusive Churchill quote, I have found some information. Take a look at the Winter 2008 edition, Issue 141 [2] of Finest Hour [3], the Churchill Centre’s quarterly journal which “touches on Churchill’s political philosophy and its relevance to today’s issues” [4]. On page 30 there is an article, “Red Herrings: Famous Words Churchill Never Coined.” At the bottom of page 31, right hand side, you’ll find five quotes that are often attributed to Churchill, but the search is still on for reliable sources that can verify or disprove the claim. Of the five quotes listed one of them is “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

    By the way, I did find that using Google, but I agree that it would have been difficult to find for your average searcher and could have been easier if some/any of those quote sites, instead of taking quote attribution at face value, did their own research/verification.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_Web
    [2] http://www.winstonchurchill.org/images/finesthour/vol.01%20no.141.pdf
    [3] http://www.winstonchurchill.org/support/the-churchill-centre/publications/finest-hour
    [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Churchill_Centre

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks for the great comments. Your connection of the obscurity of data is right on. From a mass consumer point of view, I see categorization problems as a huge issue. We work extensively with pro’s and DIY’s on home projects (hardware store stuff). I’m constantly surprised by how ill-defined the language is – probably because it has evolved and not been designed. Made worse by manufacturers who each want their OWN terms to be unique.

      And thanks, especially, for the leads on Churchill. I’ll check them out.


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