Are Search Engines Secretly Telling You What To Do?

An arm holding a magnifying glass over the Search Bar. Image: Getty Images - By Blossomstar

Introduction

“What’s the weather like tomorrow?”
“What time does KMART close?”
When we have a question in mind, a quick way of finding those answers is to “Google” it.

The Search Engine is a powerful tool filled with an enormous amount of information. It is an information retrieval system that allows for keyword searches of distributed digital text. But this term has been extended to included searches of information environments and media forms such as multimedia, photographs, videos etc (Havalais, 2013. Pp. 5-6).

But how exactly does it work? And how does search affect us today?

This article will predominantly be focusing on Google as the main Search Engine. I will also be analysing the societal issues that have come with the use of search engines such as discrimination and racism towards women and minority groups.
Additionally, I will also explore historical trends of Search, the key players, and who benefits most from this tool, and who does not.

Genesis of Search and How It Works

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote his visionary article “As We May Think”, describing his imaginary desktop machine called Memex. The idea of memex was to “associate indexing” and allows navigation whereby “any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another” (Levene, 2006. Pp3). Below is an image of Memex.

Vannevar Bushs Memex desktop machine.
Image taken from “An Introduction to Search Engines and Web Navigation”. pp. 3

Throughout the 1990s, advancements in the search engine technology allowed for the web to have phenomenal growth. This meant that competition between a number of search engines was compared by the size of its database and how quickly that database was updated, a technical challenge for search engine engineers. For example, SavvySearch provided metasearch, Northern Light included material under license as part of their search results, and Ask Jeeves designed their platform to be more user-friendly and intuitive, encouraging users to ask fully formed questions (Havalais, 2013. Pp. 23-24).

Below is an illustrated diagram of how search engines comb through information uploaded. Spiders are used to follow links and trace content. Spiders continually search the web and web pages to sort and categorise the content. They link and learn about different web pages by analysing metadata and keywords.

Illustration of how the Search Engine works using Spiders
Image taken from HostGator “How Do Search Engines Work?”

Historical Trends in Communications Media

It was not until 1998, where Google entered the market and provided search functionality for users. Google became a key player for search and soared in popularity with users because of its simple and clean interface. Making it easy for users to navigate.

By mid-1990, the World Wide Web was beginning to be used more and could be found in many parts of the world. However, American sites and the English language continued to make up the bulk of the web (Havalais, 2013. Pp. 25).

Today, after almost 30 years of the World Wide Web being used, the English language continues to dominate the web. Whilst there are other search engines such as Baidu which is popular in China, Google continues to cater to an English speaking audience. This is an issue because it creates biases towards certain races and minority groups.

In 2013, the United Nations launched a campaign using “genuine Google searches” to bring attention to the sexist and discriminatory ways in which women are regarded and denied human rights (Noble, 2018. Pp. 15).

In her article, Noble explains how Google search results were associating ‘black women’ with ‘pornographic and otherwise disturbing results’ (Noble, 2018. pp.18-23). Googling ‘beautiful’ in the image section gave photographs of a woman in revealing clothing whereas ‘professor style’ loaded photographs of professional men in business attire.

This is problematic because Google has a dominate narrative and stereotypes should not be gratified, even in three-hundredths of a second or less (Noble, 2018. pp. 24).

In 2015, however, Google introduced an image recognition algorithm in Google Photos which classified ‘black friends’ as ‘gorillas (Vincent, 2018. theverge.com)’. This further proves to racial objects towards minority groups as the AI software at the time was still learning and had not been exposed to such content.

Key Business Players

In 2005, Google launched a video platform called Google Video which had failed. However, Youtube, which also launched in the same year had gained traction. By 2006, more than 1000 million videos were being uploaded per day on Youtube. In 2006, Google also acquired Youtube for $1.65 billion (Johnson, 2020. investopedia.com).

In 2008, Google acquired DoubleClick (now called Google Ads) for $3.1 billion which is an ad management and ad serving solutions business. And in 2014, Google acquired Nest, a smart home products company for $3.2 billion. Waze, a mobile navigation app was acquired for $966 million in 2013 and Looker, a business intelligence software and data analytics company was acquired for $2.6 billion in 2020 (Johnson, 2020. investopedia.com).

With these companies acquired by Google, it allows for Google to have a variety of advertising and control in the online space. Especially when the search engine is the world’s most popular with an 87% share of the global search market.

Who Benefits from Search

The main issue with Google is the bias results that are produced in a split second of a user typing in the search bar. “Social scientist, Robert Epstein, has pointed out that Google alone can determine the outcome of any American election just by altering its search suggestion” (LibertyPen, 2018. Youtube video).

The video below suggests that Google uses data mining to channel election information to key voting demographic. Which means they could steal an election and users won’t even know it happened!


The Trouble with Google by LibertyPen on Youtube

“If executives at Google had decided to study the things we’re studying, they could easily have been flipping elections to their liking with no one having any idea” as said by Robert Epstein (Rogars, 2015. wired.com).

Information monopolies such as Google have the ability to prioritise their personal interests such as businesses who pay for monetised content compared to competitors and smaller companies that are less profitable in advertising to clients (Noble, 2018. pp.24).

As mentioned above, Google owns multiple companies that compliment each other when it comes to advertising (alongside paid ads). It would be a domino effect and a disadvantage for companies who are not able to promote their business or content through paid advertising from Google.

Conclusion

Overall, search engines have a significant impact on the way society views history, politics, economics and cultures. Information that has been uploaded on the web may be false and conceiving as seen in political statements, and information could also exclude race, minority groups, or an entire gender, as pointed out by Noble, S.

Google as a company, were unable to be 100% transparent with information, articles and websites that have been monetised in the past. However, there is now a clear distinction between paid and sponsored posts in the search engine compared to regular websites. The only issue is the altering of search engine results as pointed out by Robert Epstein which can sway voters without them knowing.

Arguably, users are more aware of ‘sponsored’ and ‘promoted’ websites on Google. It is also paramount for users to be able to identify spam content to avoid being influenced by false or misleading news.

 

Word Count: 1267

 

References

Havalais, Alexander (2013) ‘The Engines’. In Search Engine Society. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press. pp. 5-31

Johnson, M. (2020) ‘5 Companies Owned by Google (Alphabet)’. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/investing/companies-owned-by-google/

Levene, M. (2006) ‘An Introduction to Search Engines and Web Navigation‘. pp. 3

Noble, Safiya U. (2008) A society, searching. In Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York University. pp. 15-63

Rogars, A. (2015) Google’s Search Algorithm Could Steal the Presidency. Retrieved from wired.com https://www.wired.com/2015/08/googles-search-algorithm-steal-presidency/

‘The Trouble with Google’ by LibertyPen retrieved from Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPeX6pQyNIs

Vincent, J. (2018) Google ‘fixed’ its racist algorithm by removing gorillas from its image-labelling tech. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/1/12/16882408/google-racist-gorillas-photo-recognition-algorithm-ai