Its time to turn the magnifying glass back on Google Search – and ask ‘What are Search Engines and how have they impacted our world?’ Be right back, I’m gonna Google it…
Using search engines, like Google, as the first point of contact through which we organise and access the information of the internet has become so culturally ingrained into our lives that to ‘Google’ something has become a verb.
With over 40,000 Google searches being made every second, something we almost unconsciously do, it is a vitally important way to critically, historically and sceptically analyse this phenomenon so we can more deeply understand our relationship with our digital practices.
Search Engines: The Origin Story
If you were to Google ‘what is a search engine?’ you might come across digital media theorist, Alexander Halavais’ (2013, p. 5-6), definition of a search engine as “an information retrieval system that allows for keyword searches of distributed digital text.” As seen in the graphic below, in our oversaturated and continually growing Internet, search engines play the invaluable role of crawling through the web to find information, analysing and indexing that data and finally organising that content to us in ranked order of relevance (Halavais, 2013; Wavemakers, 2016). Just like going to a library counter and asking the librarian to check their catalogue of books for the specific ones you’re interested in retrieving (Halavais, p. 11).
While historically early digital information retrieval services were based on indexes like the Dewey Decimal system, in the 1990s boom of information emerging through the World Wide Web there was suddenly a huge demand to organise and browse this “new information environment” (Halavais, p. 13-14).
Google has a monopoly on the Search Engine business controlling 92.96% of the market share worldwide, with Google.com being the most visited website worldwide (StatCounter, 2019; Collins, 2019).
It is important to remember that Google is ultimately a business, aiming to make a profit. In the attention economy, Google has figured out how to provide a powerful search tool that is convenient and vital for users to navigate all the information of the Internet, and turn the “valuable commodity” of its users’ attention into a marketable product that advertisers can purchase for money (Havalais, 2013, p.8; Davenport and Beck, 2001).
Monopolising on “location, location, location” (Agarwal, Hosanagar & Smith, 2011, p.1), Google sells premium advertising space near the top of search results and create the algorithms of PageRank which determine the order of results displayed (Pan, Hembrooke, Joachims, Lorgio, Gay, Granka, 2007). Ultimately, this has been an immensely successful business model allowing them to expand their telecommunications remit into a multitude of services and become one of the leading Big Four technology companies.
“No new technology leaves us unchanged, and often the changes are unexpected and unpredictable” – Havalais, Search Engines (2013, p. 31)
As a society, we drive the development of new technologies, but just as equally technological developments impact our lives dramatically. In analysing our turbulent digital landscape, Nacy Baym (2015, p. 25) says we are currently “standing on shifting ground in our efforts to make sense of capabilities of digital media and their consequences”.
We have seen how traditional economic models of consumerist trading of a product for money has shifted into an attention economy. With a massive amount of information on the Internet, and billions of users who have limited attention in navigating that information, in this attention economy search engines play a vital core role of providing a convenient entry point for users to connect with the information they want (Davenport and Beck, 2001, p.20). In this new attention economy those who benefit include;
- Google, by having the monopoly on search engines and making money off users attention in a form of ‘free labour’
- Users, by having a free, convenient service of finding the most relevant information
- Advertisers, by buying access to a particular audience’s attention in a very direct way
However, reports say that there is still a vast economic digital divide, or the unequal distribution of access to technology and the Internet, denying people who can not afford it to the ability to access this powerful resource on demand and the digital literacy to navigate through search engines to find relevant information. “access [to the Internet] is critical, particularly in terms of the right to freedom of expression, and in the redressing of structural disadvantage”
From a liberalist political theory as John Stewart Mill’s explains (1859) the World Wide Web promises to be a forum where “people speak and exchange ideas freely” with little government interference over the individual (as cited in Gordon, 1997). The search engine could be considered a powerful tool in the political system in facilitating the ability for citizens to find relevant information that helps them become an active and well-informed member of society. It could be argued that a convenient, easy to use a tool like Google Search actually levels the playing field politically as even the most uninformed users can join in and inform themselves through a quick Google of political candidates or political debates.
However, when we consider the Brexit referendum as an example, we can see how tailored search results and targeted advertising actually create filter bubbles and echo chambers leading to misinformation and arguably less democratic political awareness.
In fact, according to this article, the second most common Google Search in the UK after the results for the referendum were announces was ‘What is the EU?’ suggesting that there were a large number of not-fully-informed citizens participating in this major political discussion.
Thus, we must acknowledge the imbedded bias prevalent in these search engines’ algorithms, which are heavily reliant on the exact keywords the user types in and also influenced by previous searches to offer ‘helpful’ relevant results (Halavais, 2013) that could ultimately lead to a biased display of results at the detrimental of the user.
Everyone is now more connected than ever through a single search bar! The idea of the ‘small-world phenomenon’ claims that on average there are ‘six degrees of separation’ between any two people on Earth, but online through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook studies have shown that this is actually more like 3.4 degrees of separation online (Kleinberg, 2000 cited in Bakhshandeh, Samadi, Azimifar & Schaeffer, 2011).
Stronger digital social ties are beneficial for meeting new people, combatting loneliness, spreading social awareness, fostering empathy of others and mobilising groups of like-minded individuals for productive purposes like the #ASLIceBucketChallenge charity fundraising campaign.
Mark Zuckerberg took on the viral Ice Bucket Challenge – and nominated Bill Gates! Source: Youtube
To which Bill Gates responded and took it to the next level! Source: Youtube
However on the flip side, when everyone is Googleable and these hyperlinked search engine tools are so powerful issues of privacy arise.
- There have been instances reported of companies refusing to hire people because of ‘unprofessional’ photos on their social media accounts – which backfired in this case
- Cases of cyberstalking and online harassment on multiple online platforms and using fake accounts, like this case
- And people acquitted from in criminal cases only to be reminded of those allegations every time they Google their name – to which in this example the courts forced Google to remove the incriminating references under the EU’s Right to be Forgotten.
Finally, Google’s search engines have become so culturally ingrained into our everyday world that it is a verb. This functionality had greatly benefitted the way we interact with and understand the world around us by providing organisation and searchability to an immense amount of information (Halavais, 2013). Search is also a powerful tool to translate data collected into a tool to gain a deeper cultural understanding of society, as Nobel (2018, p. 15) says using search as a mirror of its users.
Just like Google Trends.
@GretaThunberg is the top trending search of the past 24 hours in Australia. Over the last 7 days, search interest in Greta Thunberg surpassed search interest in the Prime Minister in Australia.#auspol #GretaThunberg #UNGA #ScottMorrison #GoogleTrends pic.twitter.com/yKVpp5bdGH
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) September 25, 2019
Yet in deeper critical reflection this should be done with a grain of salt, as Noble (2018, p.1) suggests, analysing search engines from a cultural perspective highlights the cultural stereotypes that these systems perpetuate through what he called ‘algorithmic oppression’.
While there is an assumption of objectivity surrounding search engines, ultimately there are humans creating these algorithms and those humans “hold all types of values, many of which openly promote racism, sexism, and false notions of meritocracy” (Noble 2018, p.1). This is exemplified in the UN Women ad campaign called ‘The Autocomplete Truth’.
And finally, we must acknowledge that this is a heavily wealthy, first-world country perspective, as there are many people globally living without the same telecommunications infrastructures that Google relies on.
Hey Google, what does this mean?
As we have explored:
- Search Engines are not stand-alone inventions but have been developed from a long history of gradual technological development and a necessary need in a massive information boom of the World Wide Web.
- Google’s success is contingent on providing a convenient solution to this need of navigating this ever-growing Internet and selling those users attention for profit in this attention economy.
- And finally, when critically considering Search Engines’ economic, political, social and cultural benefits and consequences we can more deeply understand the huge impact that these technological developments have on our lives, but also vice versa. Technology does not exist in a vacuum but is a living, breathing part of our current world, and so, therefore, provides a unique lens through which to discover more about ourselves.
So, next time you start typing in that fun primary-coloured search bar or yelling ‘Hey Google’ from the other side of the room, you might take a second to flip the magnifying glass around and unpack a bit more of our complicated relationship with our friend Google.
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