Information isn’t what it used to be

I grew up on the phone. My mom, a sole proprietor, expected me to help with whatever was on. The San Francisco phone book was nearly 10cm thick and I knew how to use it.

“I need 8 dozen beeswax candles and the color has to match.”

Yellow pages. Candles. Rotary dial. I called every candle store in the Bay Area. They all answered the phone. Handed my mom a report 45 minutes later with prices and opening hours.

“Great. Now call Jimmy’s on 7th and find out if they have coleslaw today.”

White pages…

The information age and the internet promise us perfect information. But they don’t deliver, and they beguile us with the illusion that we know when we don’t.

The internet works ok to organize the coleslaw call. If I already know that something exists and have adequate information about it, I can usually find it. But if I didn’t know, for example, that Jimmy’s was on 7th , or didn’t think to add “barbecue” to my search, I’d be hunting through pages of Jimmy’s. Interrupting Mom with “I can’t find it” was not recommended.

But the internet is a disaster for the candle project. Back in the good old days of telephone monopolies, everyone with a phone was listed in the phone book, and businesses were listed twice, alphabetically in the white pages, and organized by industry in the yellow pages. It was –in some ways- perfect data. The only things not listed in the phone book were people without phones and very rich people who paid a special fee NOT to be listed.

Businesses didn’t need to pay a fee to BE listed, nor did they need to hire a “SEO” (Search Engine Optimization) expert to make sure they would appear to searching customers alongside industry peers.

I’ve just moved to a new city. Confident in my “sourcing” skills, I type pilates. cheese, and kitchen supply into Google… Fortunately, in addition to training with Mom I’m a researcher and wrote one of the first dissertations that utilized web search engines as a dimension of data collection. Still awing my friends at my speed and accuracy of research –I arrive in new cities with carefully triangulated selections of the best restaurants and flea markets– I can’t help but observe the way that data is changing.

In a scientific sense of course we have to distinguish between information and data. Every business in this city has a location, product line, and (I hope) a phone of some kind. Their information or specifications, exist. But whether I am able to access these depends on some secondary process of data management. The data I have access to is a subset of the total information.

So what has happened to information with the data management system of the internet? We’ll start with pilates and move on to cheese. If I search for Pilates Cityname I don’t get a nonredundant alphabetical list of the 40 studios in the city with their telephone numbers all on one page. I get 3,220,000 results. If I see one I like the name of, finding a phone number requires an additional click/page turn, and maybe additional searching up down or across a page to find the phone number. Many businesses these days hide their phone number, directing customers instead to an email contact form that, in my experience, more than 50 percent of the time, goes unanswered. This because companies that now have to hire expensive web designers and SEO consultants can’t afford a secretary answer the phone (or the email).

But I’m a little ahead of myself. I’m assuming I’ve even found a local business. First I have to disqualify several kinds of irrelevant listings: magazine articles mentioning my search term, national or international listings for pilates equipment or dvds which have SEOd every possible search term, defunct industry associations set up several years ago with the attempt to get businesses to pay for listings (these are either incomplete or empty), shopping and consumer review sites which list everything and review only some of it, and search websites which live to repeat everything without adding any value whatsoever.  (Who created these and WHY???)

I am able to identify and ignore these irrelevant listings on the search results, but when I look over the shoulder of a friend who is looking for something, I notice they often have to click through to these and read the pages before discovering their uselessness. No wonder most people give up before finding what they are looking for. Or end up at the most highly capitalized company, which may not offer them what they really want, and what competitors could if they got my friend’s attention. The phone book didn’t require such advanced skills.

I remember warnings about the commercialization of the internet. The effects have been so complex. It’s not only the expense of individual access to the internet (the digital divide), but also the multilayered and expanding expense of internet presence, which in a more secretive way denies the searcher access to the information. The profusion of data hides what is there, and what is not there as well.

This process is compounded by the privatization of telephone systems, which no longer centralize exhaustive listings. And the data is further skewed by the fact that some businesses exercise their liberty to NOT establish a web presence, or only a minimal one.

So back to my search. The best professional kitchen supply store and the best home kitchen store in City have in common anemic web presence (minimal websites and no SEO). I learned about both of them only through the generosity of an industry peer. After trekking across the city to discover they only sold knives and uniforms, I asked where to find pots and pans and they told me about the other two stores. Once I knew the names, the internet as white pages functioned and I was able to then view the opening hours and map the location (something the white pages certainly didn’t allow).  I checked the online yellow pages and none of the three appeared, as this is a pay service. Two weeks later, wandering in an unfamiliar direction from my flat I found two kitchen supply stores within 10 blocks of home. Neither had appeared in google searches or google map searches.

I like google maps and have created my own personal map of City. Zooming in to see a small street, I noticed business names appearing as part of the base map. These change with the level of zoom, but are not exhaustive. Is this another pay service from google which assiduously convinces us that everything internet is free? Anyway, so as I’m zooming in, I notice a pilates studio in the base map that had not appeared in google searches.

Off I go to visit to another new neighborhood. Along with examining the bus routes, I search “neighborhoodname cheese”. This search produced a cheese shop which had not appeared in my hours of research and review reading. Visiting, I told them about my search process and they lamented that despite having received the rating of “best cheese counter” in the city, they couldn’t get up above the third page of google. But there aren’t 20 cheese shops in City! Most of those listings aren’t even relevant.

One of the most frustrating searches was for “used office furniture”, surely a more precise search term than “cheese”. Google was totally useless for this. I eventually found shops through their ebay stores, and the very best one, 5 blocks from my house, taking a walk.

I haven’t been so lucky with Pilates. Although I’ve visited several studios, I haven’t found one which offers what I’m looking for and I have no idea what else is out there or what I’m missing. At least now I know what I don’t know … And I won’t be lacking in exercise from the use of the internet since the best data seems to come from taking a walk.