Google and Your Brain, Part 2


OK, when I closed my post Branding, Brains, and Google, I made the point that it’s too easy to beat an analogy to death and said I wouldn’t do it. But, here I am, taking up my cudgel to give the Google/brain analogy one more whack. This facet of the analogy is a comparison between Google’s PageRank and our human need for social proof in decision making. When I’m not writing here at Neuromarketing, I’m often managing search engine optimization (SEO) projects, and it was reflecting on the intersection of these activities that suggested this new analogy extension.

Google PageRank

Google’s startling success as a search engine was based, at least in its early years, on its innovative PageRank system. By assigning a level of importance to each page based on how many pages linked to it, and in turn letting each page transmit this importance to other pages with its own outbound links, Google managed to deliver more accurate results. Pages with more inbound links, and “better” inbound links, tend to outrank pages with fewer links. That’s a simplistic view and overlooks a variety of other ranking factors, but Google’s method of taking the “votes” of other sites into account was a key part of delivering better search results.

Social Proof

There is ample evidence from behavioral research that our decision-making is often based on the response of others to the same circumstance. Here’s an example of social proof in action from Wikipedia:

In April 2007, the Washington Post convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso to play in the Washington DC subway during the morning rush hour. So he took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (excluding a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him).

The above is sometimes given as an example of social proof in action. The subway commuters are using each others’ response to the violinist in order to determine their own response to him. Without the cues that signal the violinist’s quality that accompany him when performing in a concert hall, such as expensive tickets and posters, the violinist is judged by other commuters’ reaction to him: as most commuters are primarily concerned with reaching their place of work, this forms the response the commuters signal to one another about the violinist.

I think it’s reasonable to say that there’s a similarity here (though I’m not suggesting cause and effect or even conscious imitation) – Google and our brains both try to improve the decision-making process by including the actions of others in our decision-making process. This is, by and large, a successful strategy. It’s not perfect, though – popularity isn’t always deserved, and both systems can be manipulated. Google can be gamed by a variety of techniques – buying links is the most obvious. A site that might not “earn” links based on its quality might appear to Google to be important or popular by paying other sites to link to it. And Wikipedia notes,

The concept of “Social Proof” and the fundamental attribution error can be easily exploited by persuading (or paying) attractive women to display (or at least fake) public interest in a man. Other people will attribute the women’s behavior as due to the man’s character and are unlikely to consider that they are interested in him due to the actual reasons (external gain).

I don’t think this insight makes us better marketers, but I do find it interesting that Google mimicked a technique that our brains have been doing unconsciously for millennia.

  1. Susan Weinschenk says

    Great blog topic. Reminds me of the research article by Chen (in Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 24, 2008) called Herd Behavior in Purchasing Books Online. The article talks about various types of social proof persuasion, including showing sales rankings for books (yes, people do choose the books that have higher sales rankings… a self fulfilling prophecy.) (My book about such principles of persuasion applied to web design just came out if you want more examples: Neuro Web Design: What makes them click —

  2. Brian says

    I’ve read that study too and I’m not quite sure I agree 100% with the conclusion. For one, just because people didn’t stop and gape didn’t mean they didn’t take note or enjoy. It was music. If it were perhaps a famous painter painting, and no one stopped to “look” I could somewhat agree with the conclusion.

    People could have stopped, take notice of him, then gone about getting on the subway, all the while still listening.

    Susan – I actually just purchased your book, we’ll see how it reads.

  3. Joshua McCloud says

    I think this article raises an interesting point. My one niggle is that I don’t think Google results are recognized as useful because they are necessarily popular, but because they contain the information one seeks. I think the analogy breaks down a bit in comparing something in the realm of aesthetics, taste or culture to empirical results. When I search for information about bad mortgage lending practices, for example, I’m only interested in informative results. But I do like the point you make that perceived value is very much influenced by context.

  4. Vanessa says

    Rodger, it is interesting that you use the example of Joshua Bell. Just last week I used the same example while leading an undergrad seminar group on the Jungian concept of persona. Along similar lines to what you have suggested, what we discussed was this:

    It is only when Joshua Bell is consciously acknowledged as Joshua Bell in so far as his name has come to represents one of the finest musicians, with one of the most expensive violins, who is able to play some of the most complicated musical pieces ever written; that his social worth increases. As the experiment suggests, in an unlikely context, he is not recognized as anything special. He is simply a man playing a violin. What I think the experiment tends to over look is the normative nature of the event. People may simply have understood the situation under the assumption that he was just another subway busker. In other words, common understandings in relation to a relatively normal personified role were simply (unconsciously) projected onto Joshua Bell. But then, why wouldn’t that be so?

    Many buskers are incredibly talented and as Brian alludes to – enjoyable to hear or catch a glimpse of as you pass by. That said I have yet to see any of them pull a crowd during rush hour (or at any other time on the underground for that matter). In that light, I don’t think it is our propensity to ignore beautiful music that gives the experiment its shock factor. Rather, it is after the fact, when we come to realise that we have ignored “The Joshua Bell” and his $3.5 million violin that people start asking – what is life coming to? How could we have missed that? What else are we missing?

    I’m not convinced that the experiment proves much more than the power of personal branding.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.