Google Blogoscoped

Saturday, April 24, 2004

The PageRank 100 Incident

It was an incident, Google later said – a mere wrong “0” deeply hidden in the code of the ranking algorithm, triggered at completely improbable circumstances, a bug so exotic and rare one could say it practically didn’t even exist. But of course, it existed. And one person’s life in specific would be changed by this little bug. This person was a 20-something with a keen interest in the Web by the name of Josh.

When Josh woke up this fateful morning to update his blog (he wanted to talk about the nightmarish colors he experienced, something not too unusual for Friday nights, after all there were a lot of nightmarish things going on in the world)... he already felt something changed. There were 320 comments to his last entry, which was unsuspiciously titled “Meeting Joann For Dinner”. 320 comments were about 320 more than Josh usually got. His blog was up and running for just well over a year, and even he didn’t feel it was especially exciting (mirroring his life, like personal blogs do).

Hundreds of comments on a single entry? And these were real comments, practically spam-free, taking apart his grammar, commenting on the food of the pub he mentioned, freely chatting away and just saying Hi. So really, what went wrong? Was there one of the big sites linking to him? For this quantity of visitors, and there surely must have been millions this morning, he wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon or Apple used their start page to roll the drums for him.

Josh checked his mailbox, but it was crammed. Completely full with hundreds of emails, some of them – hmm, this was weird. Some of the emails talked about “PageRank” in the subject line. Josh knew well his little blog, thanks to some avid backlinking he did from other sites he maintained, had a PageRank of 3. “Not too bad” in the eyes of Google’s measuring algorithm, but nothing that would ever rank him especially high. So Josh opened up one of those emails, and then he had this awkward head rush which made him jump to the kitchen for cigarette and coffee.

PageRank 100. Apparently, his little blog achieved a PageRank of 100. And after a coffee, Josh realized what this must mean. He called up one of his friends, a search engine affiniciado who took computer class. Matt arrived quickly, because he too never saw anything like this, and equally quickly Matt checked the rankings for some words Josh wrote in his blog. He mentioned “dinner”, and boom, his site popped up on Google’s number one spot for this word. Hundreds of millions of people visiting Google, thousands of them entering “dinner”, hundreds of them being transferred to Josh at any second.

And “dinner” wasn’t even one of the hot words. In fact it was the mass of words and phrases taken together, like “eating out”, or “San Francisco”, or “dating”, or “singles”, that had the huge impact. Josh, as Matt knowingly pointed out to him, gained the complete power of the word. Something like instant world control, he jokingly added.

“Whatever you say man, whatever you say, people will listen to you. And there will be a lot of people. Don’t tell anyone about this, you’re gonna get rich. And famous.”

Nothing too bad, as Josh thought, “After all being rich and famous means a lot of money and fame” as Matt concluded.


And three months later indeed Josh was a celebrity. Every single word of him got quoted somewhere. CNN. ABC. BBC. Slate. Wired. Daily Mirror. New York Times. Some opened up daily Josh-columns. Josh never imagined there would be so many journalists around spicing up their story with a random quip they just googled. There were Josh fan forums. There were sites dedicated to post essayist comments on Josh’s posts. Illustrations. Explanations. Discussions.

Josh, slowly and inevitably feeling responsible to say something at least remotely interesting, changed his weblog from personal diary to commentary on important world events. He didn’t have the insights, it’s not that. In fact you could consider him exceptionally clueless about politics and all. But he did have a way of putting things straight, a no-nonsense, plain real approach of talking. Not a style he invented – it was around in millions of blogs before. It was around when your neighbor started talking in the bus. It was the every-day chit-chat traditional media doesn’t consider polished enough to be worthwhile. But Josh got a PageRank 100. And Google did not know about it.

So when Josh talked about Iraq, the President had to give a press meeting. When Josh found that his Operating System was buggy, Bill Gates had to announce to do everything to better help the “average user”. (Josh was mildly annoyed by being considered an average user, so Bill Gates had to call in yet another press conference promising not to think in terms of “average users”.)

In fact when Josh commented on anything happening in the world he found to be somewhat wrong, it got changed within a course of a day or two. Nobody likes bad publicity.

On the other hand – talk about mind control – whenever Josh mentioned a record he bought he liked, it would jump into the Top 10. It would become a world wide hit almost immediately. Not everybody would like the song, but you just had to know what the hype was all about. (Loudon Wainwright III in Top of the Pops. And he didn’t even have a new album out.)

Josh could now end wars, shape products, close shops, invent fashion (the list goes on)... and revamp the life of a generation.

Of course now Josh knew why every celebrity around complains they get too much attention outside. When he walked the mall, girls would snicker. On the street people turned around, pointing. There were camera men outside in the garden, for chrissake. Josh felt like he had to adopt an attitude quickly, something like a rock-star lifestyle, so he would always know what to do and say and walk like. That’s probably why later the talking Josh-doll (Mattel paid him well) uttered clichees like “You know you want to” or “All the world’s a blog” or “Don’t listen to me, listen” or “You are a stranger, my friend”.

The only friend he lost was Matt. Matt felt like Josh didn’t have as much time these days as before... before, when Josh would still meet him and Joann for a drink. So Matt decided to end the charade; he emailed Google. And Google reacted. Josh was not only put down to a PageRank 0, he was completely banned from all rankings. It was like he lost his voice.


Sure, as Josh would later say, he enjoyed celebrity status for some more weeks before the media decided to shift focus. But maybe it was for the better. After all, he didn’t have that much to say, really. So in his journal he continued to write about his nightmares, which admittedly gained a few outlandish colors. He could even find time to meet Matt and Joann. Knowing he’d be a footnote in future history books sort of made him proud, and well, a bit lazy.

These days mostly Josh wanted to find a nice restaurant to relax. Listen to the music, have a dinner. And whenever someone asked him if he liked the food, or if he liked the music, or – beware – brought up a political issue, Josh would keep awkwardly quiet. Changing the world was a job for others. And today, Josh found a nice restaurant indeed. He lit up a cigarette.

That evening someone, somewhere at Google, was laughing. He just put a “0” deeply hidden in the algorithm, so exotic and rare it practically didn’t exist. Diane was in for a surprise.


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