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.”
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