In the Grip of Google: Nick Poyntz Looks at the Ways in Which the Ubiquitous Search Engine Is Changing the Nature of Historical Research

Article excerpt

From humble beginnings in a garage in Menlo Park, California in 1998, Google has grown into a multinational company carrying out over one billion Internet searches every day. While some criticise its dominance, its ubiquity means that getting to know Google is one of the first tasks for anyone wanting to get involved in digital history.

Google's most famous product is Google Search, a search engine that uses an algorithm called PageRank to rank websites according to how relevant they are likely to be for your search. It does this by looking at all the websites that link to a particular page, calculating how 'important' that page is considered to be by those other sites, as well as assessing the reliability of their judgement. By simulating the ways in which we judge the reliability of a piece of information, PageRank provides a powerful tool for historians to sift the web.

Searching Google for relevant sources is now as standard a procedure for historians as rifling through library catalogues. But it does have limitations: online databases, such as catalogues for digital archives and libraries, and non-textual information, such as pictures, cannot always be searched by Google or other search engines. Such sites, part of what is dubbed the 'Deep Web', have to be searched manually, which is dependent on knowing they exist.

Google Search is not the only tool that Google offers to historians. Google Maps and an associated tool called Google Earth together provide high-resolution satellite images, street maps and terrain layouts for many areas of the world. They contain an Application Programme Interface (API), a set of specifications and resources that allow users to customise how the tool works and to combine it with other web-based tools. For example, the Google Maps API can be used to annotate its maps, link them to databases of information such as census data, or overlay custom images on to them. Google Maps can be used to pin down the exact location of where something happened, or to give a new perspective on old interpretations: plotting the position of First World War trenches, for example, or mapping the journeys of Marco Polo.

Google also provides tools that help historians work together. Google Scholar is a search engine which can sift through academic monographs and peer-reviewed journals. The order in which results appear is based on factors such as how many other academics cite a particular text and the authority of the text's author. Google Scholar allows historians to find work that is relevant to their own, whether produced by fellow historians or academics from different disciplines. …