In this essay, search engines are picked as internet innovations. The essay begins by defining the term and background. Then it will explain how the genesis of search engines is a part of the history and who owns and controls them. Finally, there will be the main question, who benefits in political, economic, and social sense by giving examples of when searching “aboriginal teenager” and the search results on Naver.
Definition and Background
The definition of search engines is “a software program that searches the Internet (bunch of websites) based on the words that you designate as search terms (query words).” (Seymour, Frantsvog, & Kumar, 2011, p. 47). Search engines use their own database to find specific information (Seymour, Frantsvog, & Kumar, 2011, p. 47) and they are one of the most commonly visited websites online, such as yahoo.com or google.com (Hargittai, 2007, p. 769). Therefore, so many people rely on them to find content every day and use search engines to get innumerable information (Hargittai, 2007, p. 769).
This ecosystem below explains how search engines work.
Figure 1: The picture of search engines work (Roth, n.d., Retrieved from https://blog.alexa.com/what-is-seo/)
History of Search Engines
The search engines’ commercialization is a part of historical trends of communication media’s commercialization as Halavais (2013, p. 26) states that “the story of the development of the search engine is tied inextricably to the commercialization of the online world”. Search engines that allow people to find information quickly began to appear in the mid-to-late ‘90s, which was also a time when the number of sites on the web was increasing (Seymour, Frantsvog, & Kumar, 2011, p. 47). In that time, they established a pay-per-click program and many search engines began to offer advertisements on search results pages as Google did by using the Ad Words program in 2000 (Seymour, Frantsvog, & Kumar, 2011, p. 47). Then, the pay-per-click program was proven to generate large amounts of money efficiently (Seymour, Frantsvog, & Kumar, 2011, p. 47) and large investments have been made to compete for search engine development and its market share (Halavais, 2013, p. 27). Halavais (2013, p, 26) gives WebCrawler as emblematic because “it marked the commercialization of the World Wide Web” in 1993 and had two commercial advertisement sponsors. However, many search engines were later acquired by competitors and as a result, the size of the field was reduced (Halavais, 2013, p. 27). Introduced in the early 2000s, Google quickly climbed to the top of the global search engine market and remains the best search engine being used by users today (Halavais, 2013, p. 27). In 2005, Microsoft’s MSN Search was released, and Yahoo Search and Ask continued to be listed as major search engines in the market (Halavais, 2013, p. 27). And as search engines remain to be developed around the world, new challenges such as Mahalo and Hakia are emerging (Halavais, 2013, p. 27). “Although there continue to be a number of important search engines that are supported by government or research funding, the search engine wars of the 2000s were driven by the potential profit of online advertising.” (Halavais, 2013, p. 26).
Who owns and controls search engines?
Search engines are owned and controlled by companies. For example, Google is owned by Google, Bing by Microsoft, Yahoo! by Yahoo, Baidu by Baidu, Inc (Law, 2020). However, see figure 1 which shows that Google is dominating the market share. So, Google is the main company that controls key business in the field of search engines. It is interesting to see figure 2 because Google dominates all over the world as 92.26% only except China (Statcounter, 2020).
Figure 2: Screenshot of Statcounter page – Marie Arai
Who has benefited in the aspects of political, economic, and social sense, and who has not?
In political aspect, voters have benefited as they can use search engines to collect political candidates’ information, however, a negative aspect for the voters exist at the same time because of search engine manipulation effect that manipulates the results of search engines to prioritize one candidate over others and change voters’ preferences by more than 20% (Houle, 2016). Voters are not aware of how search engines work, so they appear to be controlled by search engines (Houle, 2016). Major search engines have unregulated power to determine election results because the majority of people use one particular search engine such as Google (Houle, 2016). So, “unregulated election-related search rankings could pose a significant threat to the democratic system of government.” (Houle, 2016, para 6).
In economic aspect, there is massive profits through advertising for search engines’ companies as they benefit more compared to other advertising platforms because they match users’ interests with advertisers through the search words (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2008, p. 22). Almost half of digital ads’ overall is accounted by search engines advertising accounts (Mialki, 2020) and Google which around 90% of their revenue comes from advertising (Graham, 2017), receives $60 billions of total ad spend, and there is $119 billion impacts on the economy of the US (Amerland, 2015). In addition, according to the lecture in week 2, search engines are the product of attention economy “as the tides of information online have expanded, our attention has become a scarce and valuable commodity – and search engines are one technology which has been invented to focus our attention.” (Martin, 2020).
The video below is very helpful to understand how search engine marketing works and how companies get profit. It says that the search results that are placed on the top of the page are paid advertisements. They target users to look at the products and campaigns, and advertisers only pay when users click the ads.
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qmm_FRIMeTg (Digital Garage, 2019, “Introduction to search engine marketing (SEM)”, Standard YouTube License)
In social aspect, society has benefited as search engines create “information society” and also they positively benefit users because “search engines enable us to increase our capabilities and competencies to compile, organize and disseminate information.” (Carroll, 2014, p. 17). Also, search engines have “promoted greater participation and enabled new discourse and discussion.” (Carroll, 2014, p. 24).
On the other hand, minority people have not benefited because search engines mirror social biases that exist in society (Noble, 2018). For example, see figure 3 below when typing “aboriginal teenager”, the autocomplete suggestions are negative and racism. This leads to cultural aspect because there is a danger of stereotypical search engines inherit the stereotypical culture (Carroll, 2014). Noble has done research focused on black girls and women, however, Valdivia (2018, p. 218) said that “this research applies to Latinas, Asian Americans, and indeed any racialized female category.”.
Figure 3: Screenshot of Google’s stereotypical algorithm – Marie Arai
The video below indicates that stereotypical algorithms of search engines and other technologies are made by people that means that it is reflecting social issues.
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWOUw8omUVg (TRT World, 2018, “Algorithmic bias explained”, Standard YouTube License)
Also, here is the search results of images when I searched doctors, “의사” in Korean major search engine Naver. The results appeared as showing only doctors in Korean dramas which is not realistic.
Figure 4: Screenshot of Naver’s nonrealistic search results – Marie Arai
How do search engines affect us?
In the end, because the search engines are manipulated as Noble (2013, p. 53) says that only 8 percent of users can distinguish which are paid search results and which are not and most users are unaware of this fact. As a result, we are affected to be placed in an uncertain search engine environment, making it impossible to distinguish between real and fake information.
Search engines that help users to get information easily are owned and controlled by their companies. They get manipulated by engineers so that they affect voters and elections. The significant profits of them come from advertising and they also relate to the attention economy. Search engines benefit users by providing information, however, the algorithms mirrors social issues as they are stereotypical and often discriminate against minorities, people of color, or gender.
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Houle, S. (2016). How using search engines impacts voter decisions. Journalist’s Resource. Retrieved from https://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/using-search-engines-impacts-voter-decisions/
Law, T. (2020). MEET THE TOP 10 SEARCH ENGINES IN THE WORLD IN 2020. OBERLO. Retrieved from https://www.oberlo.com/blog/top-search-engines-world
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StatCounter. (2020). Search Engine Market Share Worldwide Oct 2020. Retrieved from https://gs.statcounter.com/search-engine-market-share#monthly-202010-202010-map
Valdivia, A. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble (review). Feminist Formations, 30(3), 217–220. https://doi.org/10.1353/ff.2018.0050