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​While Everyone Was Watching

How Apple and Google transformed “watch” into “Apple watch.”
March 9, 2015, 9:00pm
Screenshot, Apple.

According to Pew, 87 percent of Americans use the internet, and 83 percent search with Google. If one of those hundreds of millions of Americans were to search for "watch" today, the very top result they will receive is probably a listing for the Apple Watch, a high-tech luxury timepiece that is not yet available to the public. The link leads to what is essentially a house ad for the product on Apple's website.

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We increasingly take this stuff for granted, but that listing actually makes a pretty incredible assumption—that the item that Google deems most pertinent to most people asking the internet for information about a "watch" is an upscale wristbound smartphone—that is made only more incredible by the fact it may be correct.

To me, that lone search result is a tiny SEO-fueled banner, a reminder of how deeply commercial the practical web has become, and how intrinsically assumed it is that we are all searching to shop. After "Apple Watch," which, again, did not exist until today, Google's results for "watch" directed me, in order, to Nordstrom's, Overstock.com, Macy's, and Amazon. The last regular result on the page is for Wikipedia, the only non-retailer to make the cut.

(Searches for users in different locations with different search histories will of course change the results, but we were able to replicate the largely the same results in multiple US regions, in incognito mode, and on a deep web browser. Google screenshot)

Google has, for better or worse, become our chief knowledge broker, and its conflation of "watch" with "watches for sale" in serving us results (it can serve more ads for related watch-retailers that way, in addition to offering the top slots to watch sellers) is tilting our information-gathering process in favor of whoever has put together the best pitch. Not just for a salable good, but for the discovery of knowledge itself. Apple, of course, is the best corporate pitchman, maybe ever.

We can blame the algorithm: maybe more websites are actually linking to Apple Watch than anywhere else. Which, given the charter of gadget blogs to scrutinize its every design element in a barrage of search-optimized posts (my favorite might be "Apple Watch price and release date: Where to watch Tim Cook unveil iWatch"), seems eminently plausible. Apple, for its part, feeds that algorithm by erecting its signature big tent circus, hosting an event that the tech press can't bear to pass up and offering it a stream of content ripe for repackaging.

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Or maybe, today, the internet really does want to know about that Apple watch above all else, and Google is providing us the best possible service. Maybe, today, it's objectively true that "watch" = "Apple watch."

But searches are returning this trend across the board; for clothes, accessories, and personal implements—searching Google for "shoes" does not return a single non-retailer result on the first page. It's shoe stores all the way down, from Zappos to Amazon. It is simply assumed that nobody is searching to learn about the history of shoes, or where shoes are made, or what it is that really makes a shoe a shoe. The logic that our chief aim is to consume is written directly into the engine's DNA.

Sure, you could Google "history of the shoe" or "what is a shoe" to return what is probably a very informative result. But we should at least consider why the default search for "shoe" is now autocorrected to "where can I buy a shoe" instead.

This is true for belt, shirt, shorts, suit—Wikipedia, if it's lucky, is usually the lone exception to the bazaar. Same goes with "watch," of course. And that's to say nothing of semantics: why is the assumption that I'm looking for a watch, anyway, and not to watch?

Bing, the closest thing to a Google competitor, reads "watch" entirely differently, and produces as its first result after the 'Images of watch' section, "ABC Home Schedule And Shows Pages - ABC.com," which has "watch" written into its SEO. You can see why a search algorithm would deliver that result too, after years of articles with "WATCH:" splayed out front in the headlines have accumulated on the web. Bing too serves up a commercial product first, assuming that if we want to watch something, most people will probably want to watch it on ABC.

For the searcher actually interested in obtaining information about "watch"—I'd say DuckDuckGo, the anti-tracking, anti-Google, does the best job of actually supplying a range of potentially useful information. It leads with the Wikipedia entry, returns plenty of "WATCH THIS" and "buy this watch" options, as well as, for good measure, a link to Watch, an album by British prog rocker Manfred Mann.

But relatively few use DuckDuckGo, alas. America runs on Google. None of this should read as particularly revelatory; the commercial creep of the web has been much-remarked upon and oft-discussed. Still, when a company's stated mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," it seems cynical to assume that humanity just wants that data to buy the latest and most elaborately hyped products. And there's a cumulative effect here, I think, that is quietly altering the architecture of knowledge gathering in general, in some cases for the worse. Yes, access to information is wonderful, but we're watching the subtle imprint of commercialization on the process of seeking it out; while everybody was watching, a watch became an Apple watch.

There are exceptions, and they can be unexpectedly delightful—reminders of how much personality the web had before it began to be paved over by sponsored results and SEO gamers and corporate ad budgets. When I added "once" to my "i watch" search, for instance, I was recommended a link to an old Disney song, "Love" by Nancy Adams, which came from its most famous lyric:

Once we watched a lazy world go by / Now the days seem to fly.