Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Web DOES have borders

Ok, call me naive, but this is the first time that I have spent considerable hours on the Internet in a non-English-speaking country. Before, I have hopped on to check email, but at an Internet cafè it's hard to linger for long. I am at the home of friends in Turin, Italy, a three-computer family with wireless in the home. And I have discovered that the Net looks very different from here. Not different in a bad way, but different.

It seems logical (although I had never thought about it) that a search on Google would provide a different ranking based on language and network boundaries. However, because I was having problems hooking up with their wireless setup I needed technical materials and although I am fairly functional as a tourist in Italy, I prefer my support materials in English. I did a search using English terms, and up popped the Google entry for one of those Microsoft Knowledge Base articles in English. However, when I retrieved it, I was given the Italian translation. This is considered a service by my Italian friends, but is yet another proof that we aren't on the net as individuals -- I can't get MY language or MY preferences. I am a web address in Italy, and that's as far as it goes.

Yahoo, on the other hand, appears in English and gives me a choice of searching all of the web, or just Italy. The latter doesn't give me the results I expected because numerous sites in English and outside of the .it range appear. Google defaults to an Italian interface, making it once again preferable to most people as the friendliest search engine. And the results greatly favor materials in Italian. Altavista appears in Italian, defaults to searching in Italy (but with a choice to expand to the entire web) and allows you to select either all languages or an English+Italian combination. A search on a term that originated in English but is used here, such as "barcamp," in both Google and Altavista shows the entry from as one of the first ranked pages.

I'm not at all sure the significance of this, other than the fact that once again Google excels at giving people what they want. I suspect that ranking is based on links found in .it pages, with some weight for language. It happens seamlessly and appears to be magic. I gotta give it to them, they're good, they're very good.


pbinkley said...

If you were on your hosts' computer, these sites may have been responding to the language preferences set in the browser rather than the IP address when they came up in Italian. I had my primary language set to Dutch for a while and was always being surprised by sites that respected that. In that case the problem comes down to a much smaller mixed community: not you and Italy, just you and your hosts :)

Karen Coyle said...

Actually, it happens on my own laptop as well. I'm now on the network at a hotel in Rome and a Google search looks very different to how it does at home. Now I think I need to get a grant to travel world-wide and study search results ;-).