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Digital History: In the Grip of Google

Nick Poyntz looks at the ways in which the ubiquitous search engine is changing the nature of historical research.

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 nontextual 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.

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