Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Google Game

The "Google news" function regularly includes very "progressive" sites in its roundups. Thus, among the recent "news" headlines was "Gonzales confirmed: war criminal to head US Justice Department."

Yet Google, on specious grounds, has explicitly rejected LGF and Michelle Malkin for inclusion in their roll.

My tendency to explain this as simple bureaucratic bungling, not bias, is tempered by a personal experience that proves nothing, by itself, but which gives me reason to suspect Google's fairness.

I began researching Northern slavery about three years ago during the course of trying to answer some questions about 19th century U.S. history, and I noticed there was a dearth of information about it online. There's a dearth of it in print, too. Could it be, as some of my Southern friends say, that this is because the whole subject is too embarrassing for the believers in the prevailing modern view of the Civil War, which paints the Confederate States as an evil slaveocracy, forcing a war on a reluctant but morally pure North?

No, that seemed too simplistic. So I went back to old books, many of them written almost a century ago, and collected the data on slavery in the North, which was extensive and important in colonial times.

I kept running into people, most of them born and raised in "free" states, who had no idea there ever were slaves in the North. And search engines on the Internet turned up nothing to indicate that blacks had been held in bondage in all 13 of the original states. A Google search of, say, "Northern slavery" or "slavery in the North" would send you to pages about slavery in North Carolina in the 1850s, or northern Sudan today, or Northern attitudes about Southern slavery.

So I put up several pages describing the history of slavery in the North, originally as part of an overall clump of Civil War pages. The information was principally a list of facts and dates. They were straightforward. And they were used. They got hundreds of hits a day, mostly during times when schools were in session. After they came online, Google searches of the relevant topics, naturally, turned up my pages at the top of the stack.

I have found them linked from discussion groups, from a middle school in Delaware, from a radio station in Ohio. All this was gratifying to me. I don't get paid anything to do this, but knowing that you've put out accurate, useful information for people is a good feeling. I might have had the only pages online that were linked approvingly by both Afro-centric sites and white power sites.

About the middle of December 2003, I suddenly noticed a dramatic drop in the number of hits to the Northern slavery pages. At first I attributed this to the end of college semesters. But a few days later, I did a Google search of "Northern slavery" and "slavery in the North," and my pages were no longer at the top of the list.

They weren't on the list at all.

It's not unusual for Google page rankings to shift over time. But this was highly unusual. They somehow had been "disappeared:" Purged from the search engine that had handled 99 percent of their search engine traffic.

This aroused my curiosity. The pages were still in the same places. Other pages from the same site, which did not deal with slavery or the Civil War, still turned up in their usual rankings on Google searches. Only these ones were gone. The pages about slavery in North Carolina still were there on the "results" list. The pages about slavery in northern Sudan still were there. Only mine were missing.

Using Google's electronic "recommend a site" form, I re-submitted the slavery pages to their system. A couple of days later, they were back on the list, at number one on "Northern slavery" and number four on "Slavery in the North." Two days after that, they were gone again.

My pages had been much used by students. They had pointed out, among other things, that a great many Northern institutions, including the New England universities, had their financial roots in money made from the slave trade.

In place of one of my pages, as the top Google-recommended spot for information on Northern slavery, was a site from a Yale University Web site, about how the founders of Yale had been so instrumental in "driving slavery from the North."

What was missing was the only site (and I believe it still is) that laid out the facts and dates of Northern slavery, and which also happened to take an unromantic view of the Northern involvement in the institution.

I don't know why. I don't like to admit my Southern friends were not merely being paranoid. But I can't find any other explanation.