The effects of September 11 on the leading search engine

On October 2011, this thoughtful article appeared in the journal First Monday. This is a fascinating glimpse of the world before YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, before most people carried around digital cameras, when the home pages of Fox and CNN advised readers to turn on their TV sets for the latest news. Just as the assassination of JFK forced journalists to invent modern TV news on the spot, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — which took down important websites with servers housed in the towers — forced news-seekers to improvisse. Bloggers who manually linked to other bloggers became crucial sources of information.

Post-September 11 demand by millions of users for real-time news and trusted Web sites may have transformed Google’s vision about its role and responsibilities. Soon after news of the disaster unfolded, Google added a message to its home page informing visitors that television or radio, not the Web, was the best place to find breaking news information. Google also offered links to the Washington Post, a cached version of the CNN site, and to Yahoo News:

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Google’s advice to use a traditional broadcast medium was wise counsel. The Internet remains a narrowcast medium, not suited to millions of people flocking to a handful of media sites. People who are savvy about how the Internet works don’t even try to find breaking news on the Net. I work at a major university with 1.2 gigabits/second of connectivity to the greater Internet; most of my colleagues flocked to watch cable TV in the break room, knowing that news sites would be swamped with visitors and unable to respond.

But millions of others do flock to news sites, and to portals — and to Google. Any why not? Google is extremely effective at delivering relevant results for most of the kinds of searches real users perform. Without inside knowledge of how search engines work, doesn’t it make sense to expect Google to come through with urgently-sought information when a national tragedy occurs? —Wiggins | First Monday.