Dickinson Professor Explores Google’s ‘Algorithm That Ranked the Internet’

Photo of John MacCormick leaning against a column outdoors.

Professor of Computer Science John MacCormick. Photo by Dan Loh.

Professor John MacCormick explains how google’s cofounders used math to beat the competition and change the way we interact with information

by Craig Layne

It’s hard to overstate how Google’s internet search abilities have changed the world. From business decisions to language, the tech giant’s impact is everywhere. Just google it. But long before we made Google a verb, the founders of the erstwhile scrappy search engine made mathematical choices that helped propel it past its competitors to transform the way we find information.

Dickinson Professor of Computer Science John MacCormick explores the impact of Google’s PageRank algorithm in a chapter of the new book You Are Not Expected to Understand This: How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World. Edited by leading tech journalist Torie Bosch, the book brings together many of today’s top tech experts to provide new perspectives on the computer code that shapes our lives. MacCormick himself holds 19 U.S. patents on novel computer technologies and is the author of three books, including Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers.

“PageRank revolutionized the way we interact with information,” MacCormick says. “This was an important factor in Google surging ahead of other search engines.”

Those of us old enough to remember a time before Google dominated web search might recognize the names of its vanquished competitors, like Lycos and AltaVista, which crawled the web and created an index of pages users could search. In his chapter, “Needles in the World’s Biggest Haystack: The Algorithm That Ranked the Internet,” MacCormick explains how in 1998 Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page moved beyond that crawling and indexing to creating a high-quality ranking of results to give their search engine an edge.

“Search engines live or die by their ranking algorithm,” MacCormick explains. “PageRank is a mathematical formula that determines a measure of relevance and can be computed automatically. The most authoritative and informative pages rise to the top.”

MacCormick’s essay explains how web content creators help feed the PageRank algorithm, which can “crowdsource” the opinions of billions of people by seeing which links they create and how web traffic flows, inferring their opinions on the “authoritativeness” of web pages.

“It’s an ingenious algorithmic nugget that didn’t only launch Google to where it is today,” he says. “It fundamentally altered web search, which has transformed society.”


Published November 27, 2022