You may remember, in the early days of the internet, some very smart cookies enriched themselves considerably by buying up the domain names they figured would be in demand, just as soon as major corporations woke up to the new technology. Smart indeed. Of course, one can't do it anymore. All those key web addresses have been snaffled up (I notice B&Q have managed to bag diy.com). But one can at least secure personal domains, which are useful for promoting one's own ventures and projects. For example, I own magnusshaw.co.uk - not much value to anyone else, but handy for me. And once you own a personal domain, it's yours as long as you continue to pay the fees. Or so you'd think.
Consider the case of Matthew Lush. Matthew is a video blogger, with his own YouTube channel and a good volume of followers. He also has the domain name youtube.com/Lush, which is based on the 'Lush' username he registered in 2005. This has been serving him well since last year, when YouTube started to allow customised domains for individual channels. Then suddenly, a few weeks ago, and without warning or explanation, the address started to forward visitors to the channel of Lush, the makers and vendors of pungent soaps.
"Now his visitors were confronted with images of bath bombs and shower scrubs."
Understandably, Matthew was most put-out. He'd worked hard to build his viewing audience, and was even earning a healthy income from the advertising that accompanied his clips. Now his visitors were confronted with images of bath bombs and shower scrubs. Ah! You might think. That's because Lush (the company) has many more followers than Lush (Matthew) and, as the bigger brand, they've petitioned Google/YouTube to use the domain. Not so. Matthew Lush has ten times more visitors than the soap firm. And to make matters worse, YouTube say there has been no human decision in the matter.
In fact, the Google algorithm had taken it upon itself to create the re-direct. Using search results and Google+ activity, the system had chosen to re-point Matthew Lush's traffic. Which makes one wonder why someone at Google doesn't just rectify the problem. Not likely, unfortunately. YouTube insist it is now down to Lush (the company) to surrender the address in favour of Matthew. Quite how they'd do this, as the all-powerful algorithm is in charge, isn't made clear.
"I feel betrayed."
Talking to the BBC's technology site, Matthew said:
"I've been doing YouTube for a long time, but they've stripped this from me. I have that address on thousands of bracelets that I've sold, and it's embedded in my videos. I can't remake those now. I feel betrayed."
As well he might. I think what's particularly frustrating here, is the notion that an outcome, determined by a piece of code, cannot be overturned by the people who wrote it. This is very symptomatic of a society which is more inclined to trust the 'will' of machines than to act on common sense. This is the 'computer says no' effect made real.
I'm not sure whether this is the first instance of someone's online domain being undermined by the whim of an algorithm, but I fear it won't be the last.
Magnus Shaw is a blogger and copywriter.