What can Google tell us about the best universities in the United States? The simplest result can be gotten just by entering the word “university” into Google and looking at the results. Here is a basic ranking of the top 25 US universities, according to Google:
- University of Virginia
- University of Tennessee at Knoxville
- Harvard University
- Stanford University
- University of Washington
- University of Michigan
- University of Georgia
- University of Wisconsin at Madison
- University of Florida
- Cornell University
- Duke University
- University of Utah
- Princeton University
- Yale University
- Georgetown University
- University of California at Berkeley
- University of Texas at Austin
- University of Iowa
- Northwestern University
- University of Miami
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Houston
- Clemson University
- University of Pennsylvania
- Syracuse University
This is the basic kind of result we will examine here at the Google College Rankings, and there are several important things to understand about it.
First, this is a ranking for today. People do generally understand that over the long term, the results displayed by Google for a given search may change. But what many people don’t realize is that Google’s results fluctuate almost continually, and the results of a search one minute may differ slightly from the results of the same search a few minutes later.
This “everflux” is due in part the continual updating of the Google database. But is also due to the fact that this master database is actually distributed over many “data centers” — separate computing locations that are needed to handle the enormous volume of requests that Google processes every hour of the day.
You may not realize it, but the search you enter at one moment may be handled by a Google computer in California, and the same search a minute later may be handled by a different Google computer in Texas. The computers in these different data centers have similar databases, but they aren’t precisely in synch just because there are so many of them and the database itself is so enormous. Thus the university ranking you get today may differ slightly from the one you get tomorrow (or in ten minutes).
Second, this is a ranking from a “clean” browser — and we draw it from a clean browser on purpose. Google makes a great many extra services available to its users to assist with their web browsing tasks: toolbars, preference settings, history tracking, and more. These features are all used in an attempt to anticipate what you may be looking for, so Google can make a better guess in providing you with the results of a search.
When you search for “Paris” do you usually mean Paris, France, or Paris Hilton? (Or Paris, Texas?) Based on your search history and the preferences you have set, Google may be able to tell whether you’re likely to be looking for geography or celebrity.
But if we are interested in an “unbiased” raking of colleges and universities — one that isn’t based on websites we usually visit or on our own geographical location — then we need to perform our rankings-search with a “clean” browser that makes use of no special settings or Google extras. And that’s just what we do here at the Google College Rankings.
Third, this is a filtered list drawn from the raw Google results. The raw results from a search on the word “university” include many websites other than those of universities themselves. The top-ranking result, for example, is the entry “University” on wikipedia.com — clearly not a place you want to send an application for admission! To produce our university rankings, then, we clearly have to filter out these extraneous addresses that are not themselves universities.
So, the top-25 list above is today’s un-preferenced Google-ranking of American universities (with extraneous non-university sites removed). But what does it say about the universities themselves? That will be the topic of the next post!