Is search engine manipulating us?

Google logo with a manipulated doll background
"Google logo with a manipulated doll background " #by Barry Schwartz

This essay will analyze about how search engine manipulates us from aspects of politics, economics, social and culture.

Brief history of web search engine      

Web search engine has played an imperative role in people’s lives, most people rely on web search engine to find the appropriate information online. The world wide web (WWW) was found before web search engine, it is a database which contains a huge amount of information and communication. To find the appropriate information easier search engine was invented. When the term search engine was mentioned most people would think of the world’s most popular search engine which is Google, but the idea of search engine has been used in the librarian system first. The earliest search engine is more like a library index, users can follow the index to find the demanding book (Halavais, 2013).When computer and WWW was populated in most families, search engine transformed into an index for online information, it helps users to distinguish different information and divide them into many categories so that users can easily find what they demand under the appropriate category. With the development of technology, web search engine developed into the text searching stage, at this stage users can type keywords to find the relevant information (Seymour et al., 2011). Later on, it comes to the stage that web search engines have their own algorithms to analyse data and offers relevant results. Nowadays, search engines cover almost every area on internet and form an ecology, internet users rely on using search engines to get information and it is also the only way to find information. The development of web search engine is not a coincidence, it is because of the convenience it brings to WWW users. WWW contains a huge number of websites, it is very hard to find the demanding website without any filtering or sorting method, therefore web search engine became a historical trend in communication media.

Who owns and controls the key business in this field?

The company which controls the key business in the field of web search engine varies through the development of web search engine, before the well-known search engine Google rise, Yahoo was controlling the key business. Different with Google, Yahoo is more likely an index for websites, users can not really type keywords for searching the results (Seymour et al., 2011). Yahoo’s index search engine has an advantage on sorting all websites into different categories so that users can view all the relevant results under their featured categories. However, the disadvantage is also significant that index page could be too messy and complicated for some internet users and it is not the fastest way to get the most relevant results, users maybe have to browse through a long list to find only one relevant result. Around year of 2000, Google took over Yahoo’s place in the field of web search engine by innovating a new technology called “PageRank” (Seymour et al., 2011). The novelty of PageRank is the ability to automatically rank all the searching results in a sequential order and present results from the most relevant one to the least to the users (Rigo, 2016). Moreover, while Yahoo was trying to embed its searching function into index websites, Google did not use the same strategy for promotion. Google focused on creating a neat and easy-understood search engine for users, so Google will never make searching too complicated for internet users (Seymour et al, 2011).

Nowadays Google has an absolute reputation in the field of web search engine, according to Nielsen//NetRatings (as cited in Halavais, 2013), Google has a global share of 53.3% in July 2007, meanwhile Yahoo only has 20.1% and the rest has far less percentage than Google does. Moreover, the large quantity of users is not the only factor of Google monopoly in the market. Google also developed an online searching ecology for better servicing users, it includes Google Map, Google Shopping, Google picture searching, Google video searching, Google News searching and Google scholar. Google’s search engine almost covers every possible area that users need. Such monopoly gives Google a great opportunity to develop merchandise, AdWords is the advertising system that google uses to gain profit. When users search some specific keywords, the corresponding advertisement will appear on the searching result page in an attractive way (PAŞCU, 2014). However, does Google’s AdWords and monopoly really benefit users? The later part of this essay will discuss who is benefited or disbenefited from the transformative effect of search engine by analyzing from the political, economic, social and cultural aspect.

The video details how Google developed through these years, Standard YouTube Licnese

Who benefits and who does not?

From the aspect of politics, web search engine transformative effect damages normal internet users’ rights. Web search engine blocks sensitive results from users seeing it, and this also can be called censorship. A Chinese search engine is a great example for searching censorship which is Baidu. Baidu has many similarities with Google, it is the most popular search engine company in China, it covers almost every dimension that users need to do searching on and it is almost a monopoly web search engine since Google was banned in China. Baidu is not only famous for its search engine but also for its insanely strict censorship.

Screenshot of searching result for "8964" on Baidu
Figure 1: “Screenshot of searching result for “8964” on Baidu” #by Qian Cheng, all rights received

See the figure 1, when the term “8964” was searched, Baidu will immediately jump out a page tells you no matching results have been found. However, if you search other numerical terms, Baidu will always find a list of matching results for you. Switching to Google, if you apply the numerical term “8964” for searching, results about Tiananmen massacre will jump out.

Screenshot of searching result for “8964” on Google
Figure 2: “Screenshot of searching result for “8964” on Google” #by Qian Cheng, All rights received

It is a historical protest held by Chinese students for pursuing democracy and freedom, unfortunately the protest failed because of army’s violence suppression and many students were killed (Abas& Broadhead, 1989). From the difference of searching results on the same term between Baidu and Google, it is obvious that Baidu has a strict censorship on political sensitive terms. The Chinese government is obviously benefited from the censorship, the monopoly search engine Baidu has blocked every possible result that can cause bad reputation for the government. Therefore, government is benefited politically, and normal internet users are disbenefited since their rights to know the truth.

From the aspect of economics, both Google itself and users are benefited from the transformative effect. How Google’s AdWords works has been explained in the paragraph above, but to better illustrate how AdWords benefits or disbenefits, more specific examples need to be given.

Screenshot of searching result for “apartment” on Google
Figure 3: “Screenshot of searching result for “apartment” on Google” #by Qian Cheng, All rights received

See figure 3, the term “apartment” is applied for searching, the first result in the result page is an apartment renting website. It seems Google’s algorithm figured out the results that I am looking for, but what I really wants to search is just the word “apartment” and there is difference between the term “apartment” and “rent an apartment”. Google’s advertising system helps both google itself and merchants’ revenue indeed, but meanwhile it also influences the accuracy of searching results and the influence can damage users’ online searching experience.

Google’s searching bias exists in the social and cultural aspect, according to Noble’s research (2018), it seems Google has some sexual discrimination in its searching suggestions. When the word “women” is entered into the search bar, the searching suggestions are “Woman can’t” follows with “drive” “be trusted”, “Woman should” follows with “stay at home” “do kitchen work”. Such searching suggestions are obvious sexual discrimination to female users. Moreover, Google’s searching bias is also presented as stereotypes.

Screenshot of searching result for “why Chinese”
Figure 4: “Screenshot of searching result for “why Chinese”” #by Qian Cheng, All rights received
Screenshot of searching result for “Why Asian”
Figure 5: “Screenshot of searching result for “Why Asian”” #by Qian Cheng, All rights received

See figure 4 and figure 5, the searching suggestions for “Why Chinese” contain “Why Chinese eyes are small”, it is a classic stereotype about Chinese, there are people with small eyes all over the world and not all Chinese have small eyes. The searching suggestions for “Why Asian” contain “Why Asian eyes” and “Why Asians are good at math”. Such suggestions really annoyed me when I was doing the research, Chinese users and Asian users could also be offended like me.

To conclude, web search engine has become an imperative part of online services and internet. With these years’ development, web search engine transformed from online index websites into intelligent searching engines with advanced algorithm. And recently, Google occupied the world’s web search engine market and Baidu occupied Chinese web search engine market. The development of search engine brings people convenience but meanwhile it also damages people’s rights and internet experiences. The algorithms benefit merchants by show the advertisement at the priority spot, and the algorithms also reflects social issues which are stereotypical and gender & colour discriminating.



Abas, M., & Broadhead, J. (1989). The Tiananmen Square Massacre. BMJ: British Medical Journal,            299(6693), 269–270.

Halavais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search engine society (pp. 5–31). Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.

Noble, S. U. (2018). A society, searching. In Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce          racism (pp. 15–63). New York University.

Paul Paşcu. (2014). Internet Advertising. Google AdWords versus Facebook. Ads. Journal of Applied            Computer Science & Mathematics, 8(17), 34–36.

Rigo, M. (2016). Advanced graph theory and combinatorics. ProQuest Ebook Central

Seymour, T., Frantsvog, D., & Kumar, S. (2011). History Of Search Engines. International Journal of            Management & Information Systems (IJMIS), 15(4), 47-58.





About Qian Cheng 4 Articles
USYD student major in digital culture