Google: Redefining untrustworthy

I don’t know how Dictionary.com stays in business.

I’m sure a dictionary website doesn’t have the same requirements as a Facebook or even a Yahoo; it’s not going to take a giant server farm to host all the data that can be easily stored in one, giant book with gilded edges that the library has repeatedly told you is neither for sale nor a plaything.

But even with such spartan infrastructure there has to be little demand for a website that exclusively does one thing; particularly when your “one thing” is defining words, a task handled by far more websites that offer visitors more than a simple definition.

My preferred online dictionary? Google.

Here’s the scenario: You’re locked into a nerd war online with some guy that thinks they shouldn’t make a TV series out of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” You, having read “American Gods” and knowing that it is exactly the kind of novel that lends itself to episodic television, are defending the unseen and undeveloped series with a passion and intensity normally reserved for the war cry of a dying samurai.

Then the other guy has the nerve to call you a “mumpsimus.” How do you react? Is he some thesaurus loving poser with the aspirations of a writer and the linguistic comprehension of a lazy high school junior? Of course, but this is the internet! And nothing can make you quite as angry as losing a fight on the internet with someone you’ll never meet over something that will never matter in your life to any measurable degree.

I will not abide this transgression … but first I’m going to learn what mumpsimus means.

And how do I do that? Load up dictionary.com, suffer through the pop-ups and banner ads and the inevitable slowing of my browser, all to get the answer in a matter of tens-of-seconds as opposed to a fraction of a second? My enemy that I do not know yet hate with every fiber of my being may very well use these precious seconds to claim victory, thereby “owning” me and ending the conversation/screaming match. How will I ever face the internet again after such humiliation?

That’s why I’ve always used Google. Just type the unknown and therefore offensive word into the ubiquitous engine and presto (technical term) you have the definition, any secondary definitions, the origin of the word, a chart showing the popularity of the word’s usage over the last 200 years and even the option of translating your word into dozens of languages, including all real languages AND Esperanto.

“Ok,” you may be thinking while wondering if anyone has ever been offended by insulting Esperanto, “Google is all well and good for finding directions, checking restaurant hours, determining movie times, figuring out who that guy was in an old episode of “Hart to Hart” (hint: it was Robert Vaughn), or wondering when “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” went off the air; but can it possibly be accurate enough to function as a dictionary?”

I always thought so, hypothetical reader and apparently avid TV viewer, but I might be wrong.

I always believed that Google was accurate if for no other reason than the big, bold words.

You know what I’m talking about. When you type something complex in Google you get a page of search results. But if you type something simple, like the name of a TV show or a single word, a small box next to the search results shows up with the information you’re looking for in big, bold letters. No need to check another site, no need to actually use the search results; the answer is write there in black and white, courtesy of the most powerful information company of all time.

And for years those big, bold letters were all I needed to be certain. Type a question into Google, get the big, bold words, question solved. I would get angry when the answer DIDN’T come up as big, bold words.

Then I asked Google a question, as I have thousands of times before, and it returned an answer I know cannot possibly be true. Now I will recreate that terrifying moment for you. WARNING: What you are about to read actually happened to me. If you are faint of heart or are pregnant you may want to skip to another part of the paper. Reader discretion is advised.

Me: “Hey, Google, how much money is Carrot Top worth?”

Google: “Carrot Top has an estimated worth of $75 million.”

I’ll give you a minute to recover.

In what kind of world does Carrot Top have $75 million?! Whatever little money he has made from Comedy Central’s annual showing of “Chairman of the Board” is immediately spent on either Christmas lights to put on a toilet seat and pretend it’s a joke or the muscle builder de jure for amateur bodybuilders who constantly refer to “stacking their gains” or “blasting their max.”

Yes, Carrot Top has been playing Las Vegas regularly for the last ten years; but does ten years of comedy at the Luxor in Vegas get you $75 million?

So baffled was I by this Google approved citation of Carrot Top’s unwieldy fortune that I just had to see where, exactly, Google was getting their information.

I assumed, since Google has access to pretty much everything, they just compiled a list from his publically held assets, combined with his latest tax forms and came up with that staggeringly high number.

Nope! Turns out when you search for a comedian’s net worth Google uses two websites for their own big, bold word results.

The first site, celebrity networth.com, which claims to be “the website future billionaires read every day,” lists Carrot Top’s questionable $75 million fortune, a brief bio, his heigh (for some reason) and zero proof of their claims.

According to the site: “All net worths are calculated by applying a proprietary algorithm. The results are then fact checked and confirmed by a team of editors.”

Applying a proprietary algorithm? That’s what you say when you don’t want people to know you just threw two darts at a board and added “million” to the end of the numbers.

The second site that Google, one of the most trusted names in business today, uses as proof is The Richest.com; a site filled with poorly worded bios and more unproven numbers.

The Richest listed Carrot Top as being worth $75 million. The Richest also lists Bill Cosby’s worth as $400 million and his bio features a picture of Kevin Hart.

These are the people that Google is trusting with the validity of their celebrity net worth claims? Fake algorithms and not being able to tell the difference between Bill Cosby and Kevin Hart?

And THAT is why sites like Dictionary.com remain open; sometimes you just need a better source.

Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Sunday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or wburns@timesrepublican.com