Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Googlewhacking and Collocations on the Web

While the internet is definitely commonplace nowadays for the majority of the developed world, it's often amusing to think back to the earlier days of the internet. When I was in primary school we had to take a school trip to the local library to see the internet. This endeavour involved walking with your "buddy" and holding hands.

The technology in this data suite is far more advanced than
the clunky beige PC that first showed me the internet.
When we arrived, a solitary PC with a dial-up connection was used to showcase a number of the amazing features of the world wide web.

We were shown a very early example of bbc.co.uk (from 1997, to be precise) and the local weather forecast, which disappointingly but expectedly told us that north-eastern England would be rainy throughout the upcoming week.

Needless to say, we were not very impressed with two features that we could easily get from our TVs instead. The search engine, however, really sparked our imaginations.

We were told that if we typed something, the computer would show us what we were looking for. Fast forward a few years and IT lessons in secondary school were an interesting affair.

The school had just had broadband installed and every single student in the class had their own terminal with a "high-speed" internet connection, which helped us to spend the whole lesson doing anything but the work we were supposed to be doing.

One unproductive time-wasting technique we enjoyed was Googlewhacking. For those too young to remember a time before "Google" was a verb, it was possible in the last decade to search using only two English words and receive the message "no results found" from Google's search engine. Finding no results with a two-word search query was the goal of Googlewhacking.

This phenomenon (which seems impossible today) was probably due to there being fewer webpages and the fact that Google was yet to have crawled and indexed the web to the extent it has today. With that said, I do believe that it can tell us about how we use language, which I personally find very interesting.

If you are familiar with collocations, certain words naturally go together more frequently than they do with others. I often use Google as a quick and easy way to check how frequently certain words are used together (there are also more advanced search tools to do this as well). You can gauge one expression over another simply in terms of results by using quotation marks when you search.

Googlewhacking (though we didn't know at the time) gave us the opposite of collocations, words that seemingly never go together. As you were not permitted to use quotation marks, Google's results indicated that those particular combinations of words could not be found alongside one another, or even in the same sentence, paragraph, or webpage. Saying the results aloud would quickly tell your brain how rare these combinations were.

The latest examples of Googlewhacks (from 2008) on the now defunct googlewhack.com included "ambidextrous scallywags", "illuminatus ombudsman", "squirreling dervishes", and "assonant octosyllable". Any native speaker will note that these are rarely used words and even rarer combinations of them.

Nowadays Googlewhacking is pretty impossible as Google tries to suggest what you were trying to say and you rarely get a page saying there are no results (especially with a two-word phrase). However, as Amazon.com has a similar concept which they labelled a "statistically improbable phrase" by using data from indexed books in order to find out which words are rarely put together in the books they sell, you could always try Googlewhacking on Amazon and hope that your results only yield one result. Though I doubt it'd ever be as fun as Googlewhacking.

Did you ever Googlewhack in the past? What are some of the weirdest examples you can remember? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.