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Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Oct 30 / Cristy Danford

Search-Engine Bias

Written by Barbara Szutkowski

Since so many of us frequently utilize search engines to find information, I think it is important to keep in mind that there are many factors which affect the results which they provide.  Complex algorithms determine the ranking of search results.  “Additionally, search engines claim they do not modify algorithmically-generated search results, but there is some evidence to the contrary.” (Goldman, 2006, p. 191)  Editorial judgments are also made about the data that is collected and its presentation.  “These manual interventions may be the exception and not the rule, but these exceptions only reinforce that search engines play an active role in shaping their users’ experiences when necessary to accomplish their editorial goals.” (Goldman, 2006, p. 192)

The use of the term “search-engine bias” includes the following concerns:

(1) search-engine technology is not neutral, but instead has embedded features in its design that favor some values over others;

(2) major search engines systematically favor some sites (and some kind of sites) over others in the lists of results they return in response to user search queries; and

(3) search algorithms do not use objective criteria in generating their lists of results for search queries.
(Search Engines and Ethics, 3.1 Search Engine Bias and the Problem of Opacity/Nontransparency, para. 1)

I was surprised and disturbed a year or two ago when I first found out that two people doing a Google search could get different results.  I had assumed that searching on particular words would return the same results to everyone, but that is no longer the case.  The results generated by search engines are now personalized based on a user’s profile.  I like the following example of a search:

For example, if I enter the term “eagles” in a search box, the list and the order of returns that I receive will likely depend on the profile that the search engine company has constructed about me. If the company determines that I am interested in biology, for instance, I may be directed to a site sponsored by the Audubon Society. But, if instead, it determines that I am a sports enthusiast living in the Philadelphia area, I may be directed first to the Philadelphia Eagles Web site (or to a related professional football site). On the contrary, if my profile suggests that I like rock/pop music, I may be directed first to the site for The Eagles music group. So there would not appear to be any overall “objective” formula used by the search engine in question. (Search Engines and Ethics, 3.1.3 The Problem of Objectivity, para. 2)

My privacy and security are very important to me, so I do not like the idea of having my browsing activities tracked.  Therefore I only have cookies turned on when necessary.  I prefer to create my search string with enough specificity to generally get the results for which I am looking.  Using the above “eagles” example, I would enter “eagles birds,” “Eagles music group,” or “professional football Eagles” rather than have the search engine guess at my needs.

I believe in thinking about the trade-offs involved when providing personal information to a vendor or a search engine.  I am willing to spend a few more minutes doing a search to avoid the intrusion of allowing my browsing activities to be tracked.  I am willing to miss a discount from a vendor or a restaurant that I only buy from occasionally in order to avoid entering personal information in order to become one of their “members.”

 

References

Goldman, E. (2006). Search engine bias and the demise of search engine utopianism. Yale Journal of Law & Technology, 188-200.

Search Engines and Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2013, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-search/#SeaEngBiaProOpa

 

5 Comments

  1. Kimberly Mason / Nov 13 2013

    Reading your post, I am not surprised about search engine bias. Every creator adds in mechanisms to make a system or product look appealing to use yet has a great advantage for them. However, I am surprised that you could get different search results using the same word search and search engine. I knew that websites tracked your search which is why I would get advertisements for sites I’ve searched for in the past. But I would never have thought that my past searches would guide the type of search results that I would receive. I guess that explains why I prefer to use the Google search engine, because it always appeared to give me more precise results. As compared to if I used the Yahoo search engine. The results usually did not meet my needs and required me to consistently narrow or rephrase the words in my search string. I thought that Google was just better.  Now I know better.

    I agree with Kim Wiljanen that it is creepy how data mining and social media sites captures what a person likes and targets them with certain advertisements. It’s funny when using my smartphone I am adamant about not agreeing to certain request for applications that I infrequently use to track my location yet it is probably doing it anyway through a different application that I use every day. I guess we need to learn that there is no way to really hide. Someone or something is always watching our every move.

  2. Kim Wiljanen / Nov 11 2013

    The search engine bias explains a lot of things. I used to try the new engines when they came out, but Dog Pile broke me of that habit. For some reason, a great many of the sites were embarrassing and the search terms were not.

    We have all had discussions on relevancy rankings from the various search engines and the pro and cons. I think it is only my poor mind that cannot fathom that someone can write bias into a complex algorithm. But each year that passes, new capabilities are being added to software and tracking capabilities. We seem to enjoy the extra attention that it brings to our lives.

    From what I hear on the news, targeting people is the advertising of the future. It has a lot to do with mobile devices and social media. Data mining and social websites have made it possible to very narrowly target what a person likes. It’s positively creepy.

  3. Kerry Roman / Nov 10 2013

    I can certainly understand why protection of privacy is important. However, I have to say I find the previous history search engine bias very helpful. I appreciate that I can see my past searches and, as a result, have future searches tailored specifically to me. I do not see this as a way to invade my privacy. Rather, I see it as a way to make my life easier.

    Just like the example Joanne provided about the grocery store coupons. I like that my previous purchases can inform a business of my buying habits and provide me with coupons or ideas for future purchases. This is a much more efficient (and paper saving!) way to develop customer loyalty than sending a bunch of random coupons that I won’t use. If I have to give up my privacy regarding which type of cat food I prefer, so be it.

    As for the directed advertisements during web searching, I usually just ignore them. I really don’t see this as an invasion of my privacy. It all comes down to intent. Do I think businesses or search engines are tracking me for nefarious purposes? No, absolutely not. It is just another way to make my life easier or, in the case of advertising, make more money for their company.

  4. Joanne DePastino / Nov 7 2013

    You raise a good point. It is disconcerting to have a search engine decide what it thinks you want based on your previous actions; somewhat reminiscent of “big brother” in George Orwell’s book 1984. Only in that instance it was a totalitarian government watching your every move not an algorithm built around your inputs.

    However, we have to be realistic, this is where society and technology are headed. Though a few, like you and I, prefer our privacy, most people willingly give personal information via social media sites so it is irrelevant that a search engine would look at their pattern of behavior on the Internet to guide the information that it offers.

    We also need to remember the benefit of this type of technology. For instance, the coupons we receive at the grocery store are related to our previous purchases. Is this bias? Absolutely! But we don’t think about it because it is beneficial. We feel we are being rewarded for shopping at that store and the store increases its revenue by enticing us back. This marketing campaign wouldn’t be as successful if the coupons were random.

    The purpose of technology is to make our lives easier and the ubiquity of Google proves that people like what they are receiving. In the realm of infinite data, search engines use bias to structure an almost unlimited number of results. Google is successful precisely because it tailors to the needs and wants of the user, not in spite of it. Is there a better way? Always something to think about.

  5. Adam DeWitt / Nov 1 2013

    This is a very interesting analysis. It seems as if this predetermination of search results is the new norm. While it prevents a researcher from discovering different websites after each search, it is useful in finding desired information or for retracing steps. It has its positive and negative aspects.

    Another aspect of bias in search engines is in advertisements. Often, the advertisements we see are for products related to searches we have performed in the past. Advertisers then use that information to determine which advertisements to use for who. While seeing deals on books I am interested in is fascinating sometimes, the advertisements consume too much bandwidth, bogging down the loading time on a website.

    Does anyone think the collection of information for advertisement or future searching is a good thing? Who thinks it is not? Who thinks it is both good and bad? Why?

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