Our digital memory and the Google effect


The Google effect, busy lifestyle syndrome, or digital memory loss: in the past few years our memory seems to have radically deteriorated. When I grew up in the early 90s I knew the phone number of half of my classmates by heart. Now i can hardly remember my own number, and remembering that of my mother is very difficult. Also friends and acquaintances always telling me stories about forgetfulness. We are still too young to have dementia, so what’s going on?

Examining the Google effect

digital-memory-lossThe term ‘Google effect’ appeared for the first time in a publication from 2011 on a study conducted by a team led by Betsy Sparrow of the American Columbia University. During a number of experiments the team observed the effect of digital information on the workings of the human memory, and came to some important conclusions:

  • If we expect information to be available digitally, we simply do not remember it
  • But we remember the location where the information is stored, rather than the information itself
  • When we need information we immediately think of computers and search terms before we even consider whether or not the information may be in our memory

The way our memory works has certainly changed. Facts and information don’t trigger our long-term memory like it used to. But that does not necessarily mean that our memory has deteriorated. The fact that we do remember where to find data shows that our memory is operating just fine. Moreover, it was found that when the subjects were told that some data would be deleted from the computer, they suddenly managed to store it in their memory.

So we actually don’t have to worry about the quality of our memory. For many people, anxiety is triggered as a natural distrust of change, which is an ancient human trait. As far back as 370 BC. Plato expressed his concern that people would become more forgetful because they would write down everything haphazardly in books.

Findability is key

Okay, so our memories work differently, but our capacity to remember has not decreased. As an entrepreneur or marketer to what extend do we need then consider this Google effect?

Findability-is-keyThe crux lies in the newly developed urge to search for information through online search engines, i.e. googling. It is therefore increasingly important to be discoverable through these systems. You can assume that your audience forgets your story in leaflets, advertisements and your website. It’s more important that your visual branding is recognisable, your URL is logical and easy to remember and find, and especially that you rank high in online search results. The chance is very likely that a potential client first types in your business name in Google, and when he doesn’t even know your name he will first search keywords around your product. So when your competition is higher on the list, you have lost your customer.

The most important tips to keep playing a role in the forgetful digital era:

  • Make sure all your communications have a distinct visual style that clearly identifies you as the sender
  • Be careful with your SEO and be well aware of the search terms that your customers use trying to find you
  • Keep an eye on developments in the SEO field and keep adjusting yourself. For example, search results are increasingly adapted to demographic data such as, gender, age and location, or to the expected preferences of the searcher

The biggest challenge lies in the latter point. Although it is amazing that companies like Google and Facebook send users to pages that he or she would like, and you can reach an audience that is potentially more highly interested in your site, it still has a particular risk. There is improved access to a specific target group, but then again, there may be a group out there who you want to approach, but who then cannot find you through other channels. In this situation, as a marketer you seem to have less control, which is, after all, down to the public’s behaviour, and the Internet companies that apply their content filters to their searches. Be aware and design your communication with the search behaviour of your target audience in mind.



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On January 5, 2017
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