Weird Googles, weird results

I’ll preface this post by explaining that my search wasn’t actually as weird as it will look at first blush. You see, last Wednesday’s History of the Common Law lecture touched on the Black Death, and without getting into too much unnecessary detail, turns out it killed a lot of people. Naturally, instead of paying attention to class, I found myself wondering if anyone I’ve heard of died from the Black Plague.

The problem? It’s hard to think of specific people who were alive during or shortly before 1350 off the top of my head. After one or two unsuccessful tries, it hit me: I was too fixated on the name, when it would be just as interesting to learn of the demise of someone who held an important office at the time. Someone whose ignominious final moments would have been reported breathlessly by (something like but not necessarily) TMZ. Someone who wasn’t a damn peasant.

Meanwhile, Wednesday happened to be (something like but not necessarily) his last day in vestments, so one office made for an obvious first object of my curiosity:

did the pope die in the bubonic plague search

OK, so that’s how we got here — but my responsibility for the weirdness ends after I hit enter. From there, the weird results were all Google’s:

did the pope die in the bubonic plague

I’m going to draw your attention to two things, in order, from the top.

One: maybe I just don’t pay enough attention, but I’d never before seen Google suggest a search that took something perfectly English and grammatical and turned it into something else. Sure, it’s given me bad suggestions before, but never on the order of “did the pope died.” That’s much more the kind of result I’ve come to expect from (something like but not necessarily) Google Translate. I guess that’s what I get for running a natural language search (Advanced Legal Research ftw!).

Two: three* of the top five results were somehow related to Jews (you have to look at the second result’s url or you’ll miss it). And no, I’m pretty sure it’s not just because I’m Jewish.

For one, I didn’t conduct the search from my usual browser, or sign into my Google account (see: “+You” in the top-left corner), so — unless Google has started associating demographic information with computers and not just accounts — my religion shouldn’t have affected the results.

For two, we’ve already established that Google doesn’t have a particularly solid demographic record of me. And even if Google did figure out that the googler was Jewish, it’s still pretty creepy to return so many Jewish results in a search obviously conducted about someone (to quote a nameless YLS professor who shares the pope’s religion) “as goy as they come.”

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*To save you from having to conduct your own investigation, here are the three relevant links: one, two, three. It seems that the Black Death did not kill the Pope — in fact, if anything, it cloned him: during the period in question, one Pope poped in Rome, the other poped in Avignon. And this comes up in articles about Jews because the two Popes reacted to the Black Death rather differently.

The Pope in Avignon was a bit of a germy. He “stopped all sessions of court, locked himself in a room, allowed no one to approach him and had a fire burning before him all the time. [This last was probably intended as some sort of disinfectant.]” More relevantly, he protected the Jews under his protection.

Across the rest of Europe, Jews were burned (for causing the plague, obviously). Here’s a longer excerpt from link one, above:

On Saturday — that was St. Valentine’s Day** — they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors.

Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine, whether Free Cities or Imperial Cities or cities belonging to the lords. In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial. In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated themselves.

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**This, in turn, reminds me of my dear Uncle’s family’s holiday tradition: Every Christmas, they would light a candle, lock the door, and try to hide from the pogrom in the cellar.

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11 thoughts on “Weird Googles, weird results”

  1. Yes, Google tracks your computer. If you use IE you can enable “do not track” feature, which is also on by default in IE 10.

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      1. Now I ran it on one of the YLS computers. Still, same results. Granted, there are a lot of Jews around here, but somehow I don’t think that’s it.

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  2. I don’t know about these specific results, my answer my general. As with all special cases – it might just be the “truth” on the WWW – that most articles about Black Death reference Jews in a substantial way.
    In general – yes, tracking is also used in giving search results in Google. As opposed to Bing which uses mostly search history, and explicitly tells you about it in an opt-in way. (And therefore private mode will not register for it in either direction)

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      1. What truth? No search engine is returning you the truth or even pretending to do that. They are returning you search results for your query that they think best relate to what you were trying to find.

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