Zelophehad’s Daughters

Don’t Google “Mormon”

Posted by Ziff

My ward’s high councilman warned us recently not to Google “Mormon.”

It wasn’t as totally out of the blue as I make it sound. It was during Fast and Testimony meeting. Someone told a story about talking to a friend about the Church. I wasn’t paying close attention and didn’t catch the details. I assume he said something about telling his friend to just Google us up, or if the friend already had. Anyway, the high councilman stood up afterward and said that we shouldn’t suggest that people Google “Mormon,” but instead we should point them directly to Mormon.org.

I can understand his motivation. After all, there’s all kinds of Mormon stuff out there that hasn’t been approved by Correlation, not to mention genuinely anti-Mormon stuff. That said, though, I think actually telling people not to Google “Mormon” is probably a bad idea if you really don’t want them to because it raises the obvious question of why you shouldn’t do it. Googling works really well for finding out lots of other things, and it’s very easy to do for anyone who’s at all curious. The problem with this question is that the answer leads to more questions about why Church history isn’t taught more truthfully. This leads of course to the inoculation discussion that’s a topic for another day (and it’s already been thoroughly done at T&S and BCC).

Actually, what I wanted to get to was the question of just what would come up if I Googled “Mormon.”  So I did. (Two important things to note are that I did not include “news” results, and I did this search just before the Tony Awards, so it’s likely at least somewhat out of date.) Here’s what I found–at least the first 50 results–in handy graphical form:

You might quibble with how I categorized results, so let me tell you about my categories. Official sites are those owned by the Church, like lds.org and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir site. Pro sites are those that are so positive that they would probably make it past Correlation. This includes sites like Famous Mormons and About Mormonism. Neutral sites are things like Wikipedia articles or the BBC page on Mormons. Unflattering sites are ones that aren’t anti-Mormon in aim, but might have content that would disturb some Mormons. These include Affirmation and Nicole Hardy’s New York Times article “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone.” Anti sites are those actively opposed to the Church. These include Recovery from Mormonism and the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry’s page on Mormonism.

The most difficult line to categorize was probably between “neutral” and “unflattering,” as I’m sure there are Mormons who would find parts of the Wikipedia articles unflattering (polygamy). I know a lot of Church members reacted negatively to Helen Whitney’s PBS documentary “The Mormons,” which I also categorized as “neutral.”

But looking at the graph, I’m surprised at how many positive hits there are at the top. Church-owned sites take the top two slots, three of the top ten, and five of the top twenty. Pro-Mormon sites take two of the top ten and three of the top twenty. Only one of the top ten matches, and only seven of the top fifty, are actually anti-Mormon. I wonder if my high councilman would be pleased to know this. Perhaps not. Thinking again of Helen Whitney’s documentary, I recall some commenters on the Bloggernacle pointing out at the time that much of the negative response from Church members may have been a result of their having heard and seen the Church portrayed almost entirely through the glowing eyes of Correlation. Because of this, any discussion of the Church that had even a neutral tone sounded jarring to them. So it’s likely my ward’s high councilman would be appalled that there are any anti-Mormon websites at all, and likely unhappy with a lot of the unflattering ones too.

My only real disappointment was that I didn’t turn up any sites from the Bloggernacle.

26 Responses to “Don’t Google “Mormon””

  1. 1.

    My only real disappointment was that I didn’t turn up any sites from the Bloggernacle.

    And here I was waiting with bated breath to see how you’d categorize us. ;)

    I’m always a little uneasy with the idea that mormon.org should be the place to learn about Mormonism. If I were interested in learning about a church or any other organization, sure, I’d want to see its official site, but I’d probably take it with a grain of salt, and I’d also want to hear other perspectives on it. Official sites are bound to sound a bit propaganda-ish, and ours is no exception.

    Like you, I was surprised by how many positive sites were at the top–for some reason I have the impression this hasn’t always been the case (but I don’t have a source on that one.)

  2. 2.

    Yes, it’s kind of odd that the Bloggernacle blogs don’t come up anywhere near the top on this search. The good news, though, is that my novel comes up on the second page when searching for ExMormon. :)

  3. 3.

    I’m not sure what to make of your Google results having relatively recently seen Eli Pasier’s TED short on filter bubbles, where he says that your search history, geographical location, and other things can “filter” your search output. But curious, I did the same search and I’m fairly certain I got the same results, at least on the first page. We may very well have a lot of things that would effect search output in common though. I don’t know. I do wonder how the search would turn out for those who aren’t members in various geographical locations.

    I’m not surprised that the Church has sites at the top as I was under the impression that you can monetarily influence your way up there. Or at the very least there are techniques you can use and of course they would want to hire someone who could implement them (unless of course creating and maintaining websites are volunteer callings, but still they’d want the best person for the job seeing as how it’s such an important missionary resource).

  4. 4.

    I guess some people have been spending too much time reading their scriptures and not enough time working on the SEO.

  5. 5.

    For clarity here is the TED talk Maureen is talking about.

  6. 6.

    Maureen, I think you make a really good point about there not being “one Google” anymore. That’s definitely something to consider when addressing search results in this way.

    Here’s a little clarification on how search results are ordered. There aren’t any ways to monetarily influence* Google (or Bing, or Yahoo etc) to place your site higher in search results. Making it so Site A appears higher than Site B in a search engine is called SEO (Search Engine Optimization,) and is a huge business. I’d put money on the church, like any smart & large organization, having at least a few people who mainly focus on SEO.

    Good SEO is determined by a number of factors. Some of those factors are things that the church can control (the way a site is built, the way a site is maintained) and things that the church can’t directly control (how many sites link to the church’s website, how long visitors stay at a site the church owns.)

    Search engines are also designed to add variety to a search result, that means that the church will never occupy all of the first page in Google.

    *That is, besides paying for advertising space, which is different then having ones site come up naturally in search results.

  7. 7.

    Google also tries to put the official site for a person or organization at or near the top of the list, so the mormon.org would show up near the top, regardless.

  8. 8.

    I can testify that the Church is concerned about the results people get when they Google “Mormon,” since as a research assistant at BYU, I worked for a while on a project designed to optimize SEO. It seems kind of silly for a high councilman to recommend against doing something when the Church is clearly assuming that people will do it and working to make their experience as good as possible.

  9. 9.

    Like it or not, people will stray from the Church, even if they don’t visit some of those sites. And, too many think that being objective is being Apostate.

  10. 10.

    In Relief Society the instructor told us not to google “mormon teenager” or variations of that. She said that horrible stuff would come up. Of course, I went home and immediately googled those very things.

  11. 11.

    Mormon Mentality shows up on the first page for me.

  12. 12.

    Mormon Matters shows up on page four and Jeff Lindsay shows up on page five. I’m sure Google has put a tag on my browser to keep a tab of where I go and then tailor their results based on the sites I go to.

  13. 13.

    Looks to me like there’s actually a pretty decent balance of pro/con results.

    I think what bothers me about this is that it’s implied that people can’t be trusted to discern for themselves what’s a credible source and what’s not, to decide on their own.

  14. 14.

    I think what bothers me about this is that it’s implied that people can’t be trusted to discern for themselves what’s a credible source and what’s not, to decide on their own.

    Well put, Macha.

    I’m at least a little familiar with SEO–it’s cool that you actually got to work on it Petra–but I didn’t realize there was so much personalization going on. Dan, it’s interesting that you get blogs so high up. I’m an obsessive Bloggernacle reader, and I don’t. But it occurs to me that I hardly ever Google anything Bloggernacle-related (unless I’m looking for a half-remembered post or something) and I’m rarely signed in to Gmail or anything when I visit Bloggernacle blogs.

  15. 15.

    About distinguishing between credible and not credible:

    When a niece converted to Islam, I went to the internet for information on religious and social aspects — political was well covered in the press. I quickly located a website that was massive, very well designed, easy to navigate, with detailed information about just about anything you’d want to know about daily Muslim life. (I had tried talking to my niece, but didn’t want to be too inquisitorial.) This website was exactly what I had hoped to find.

    Y’all may not know that Muslims do not use toilet paper. They have water pump tanks in their bathrooms, and some carry glass bottles in their purses for use in public restrooms. This is one of the earliest things about Islam that I learned from my niece, so it’s the first section I turned to on that website — I wanted to know the hows and whys. I was quickly horrified. Not only do they not use toilet paper, but I counted 17 steps that governed Muslim use of the toilet. The website detailed for me the prayers that are uttered on entering a bathroom and on leaving it. They have to enter with the right foot first. They cannot talk to anyone while in the bathroom, even through a closed door. They must not glance at the contents of the bowl afterward. And on and on and on. The rules for other ordinary daily activities were just as strict and bizarre and restraining and, well, awful. I was terrified for my niece, not just for the restrictions governing every facet of her daily life, but also for the spiritual and moral details I learned as I read more and more on that wonderful, professional, helpful website.

    Only it turns out, I eventually learned, that virtually nothing on that website was true, and that what little truth was there had been spun in such a way as to put the worst possible light on Islam and the people who follow it. It was as anti-Islam as could be devised.

    And yet, even with my experience with anti-Mormon websites, it didn’t occur to me that the same could be true of other groups. And I didn’t recognize it when I saw it — I fell for it, totally and completely and terribly.

    Not that I agree — I don’t at all — with telling people that they must not google some particular term or subject. I just am not as confident as Macha and Ziff that people will discern credible from spurious. I couldn’t.

  16. 16.

    Ziff,

    I’m automatically signed in with my Gmail, so I do think they personalize my search based on my uses. I don’t google for Mormon sites, but what I’m saying is that I think google does what some porn sites do as well, which is tag your browser with a little cookie that follows you around. See this article as an example

  17. 17.

    I wonder if the high councilman realized that at least half of the audience would google “mormon” simply because he made that statement.

    My introduction to social media websites started many years ago after my bishop decided to end sacrament meeting with a short impromptu talk in which he warned everyone to stay away from myspace. Guess who set up an account that day?

  18. 18.

    Good point, Ardis. It’s probably like so many other biases and blind spots, where we’re all sure they only apply to other people.

  19. 19.

    I’m curious about the situation in the OP. Instead of:

    “Don’t google ‘Mormon’; it’s daaangerous.” [Creepy voice. Lights flicker.]

    might the _intended_ message have been:

    “It’s a more effective missionary technique to direct people to mormon.org than just trusting to chance. (Also, the angels that formerly made scriptures open to just the right page at just the right time are still being retrained to influence search-engine results.)”

    Of course, I defer to Ziff’s first-hand account and I’m aware that there is no shortage of the anti-googlers in Ziff’s neighborhood. At any rate, I am surprised that the results are so favorable overall.

  20. 20.

    And ditto Ardis.

  21. 21.

    I wonder if Bishops should finish sacrament meetings by announcing that you should avoid your scriptures like the plague. Especially D&C 20, 84…

    I’m not sure the rebellious streaks would kick in though…

  22. 22.

    You could very well be right, Edje. I may have misunderstood what he was getting at.

  23. 23.

    [...] going to let this kind of free publicity go to waste (though they wish they had more control over the information flow). Even the Community of Christ is wondering how to get in on the action, and atheists are wondering [...]

  24. 24.

    As an exmormon, I am shocked and appalled! I was always told the apostates and antis owned the Internet. Now I see we barely make the top ten!

    Maybe we need to spend a few million dollars on PR and SEO like the LDS church did and see where that gets us. We’re in this for worldly gain, so surely we’ve got a few mil under the couch cushions, right? :D

  25. 25.

    Heard on NPR a few weeks ago that google results vary from person to person. The person talking argued that google is tailoring results based on past searches. So I think that we would all have different searches. The person speaking was particularly concerned that we weren’t getting a full picture, representing both sides, when conducting google searches. Whether he has credibility, I don’t know. But it is something to think about.

  26. 26.

    Well, now I just HAVE to go google “Mormon.”

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