More Than Algorithms: The Manipulation of Search Engines

Introduction and Basic Definition

The basic definition of a search engine may refer to an information retrieval system that allows keyword searches of distributed digital text. (Halavais, 2013) As advanced in technology and business models in search engines, it is not only a tool for online search and access to information but also a defining part of the human situation. (Introna & Nissenbaum, 2000)

However, the commercial search engine field such as Google has already eroded the public domain. When Google uses its powerful technical capabilities to become a centralizer of information, who will regulate google so that it can hold on to the principle of “Don’t be evil”? Although Google claims that its page ranking algorithm is fair and objective, no one can understand its accurate core technology.

Therefore, this essay will trace the genesis of search engine along with historical trends, and explore the impact of networked transformation on the political, economic and cultural aspects of the process, as well as the beneficiaries under the influence of power domain and those excluded from it. Besides, this paper will explain the impact of search engines on the general Internet public.


The Brief Genesis of Search Engines

Using search engines: Benefits of using search engines:In 1992, U.S. Vice President Al Gore proposed the “information superhighway” plan. The following year, U.S. President Clinton fully promoted the plan, and thus exploded into the golden decade of the Internet’s extraordinary development. With the advance of “Information Superhighway”, the number of Internet users in the world has increased dramatically, and the amount of information on the Internet has also been increasing. By 1995, the number of Web sites on the Internet exceeded 20,000, and Yahoo, a search engine that was once the best, was also born. (Pingdom, 2011) Over time, there are more and more Web sites on the Internet. The range of The content coverage of the web site is also growing. In 1998, Google was founded, and new technologies such as Page Rank link analysis significantly improved the search technology, gradually becoming the centre of the search engine field.

 “Search engine”, #by Be Connected, all rights reserved.

Why It Can Be Part of Historical Trends?

Since the birth of search engines, it has used specific strategies to collect and discover information on the Internet, and understand, extract, organize and process the information to provide users with retrieval services. It not only alleviates users’ information anxiety but also reduces their information cost. It has become a tool embedded in individuals’ daily social contact, culture, politics and information-seeking activities in the era of network communication, and promoted the development of communication media and information management.


Who Has Benefited from Its Transformative Effects, and Who Has Not?

Search engines are closely related to politics, economy and culture.

Its political influence is reflected in the fact that any search engine has a position and tendency, which may be conscious or unconscious, among which the position may be commercial, cultural or political. This online service can help voters find information about political candidates, manipulate the search’s public opinion, value orientation, and ranking results to influence elections. According to Epstein and Robertson (2015), manipulating search engine results to favour one candidate over another can change voter preferences by 20% or more. This is also known as “search engine manipulation effect (SEME)”, that is, those undecided voters are affected by search result rankings. While contrary to this stance or tendency, it cannot benefit because there is no way to compensate for this bias. A recent example is that Google is still suspected of manipulating the 2020 US election.This innovative technology is believed to threaten the existence of democracy and weaken the federal government’s power to speak online.(Monticello, 2020)

Google is suspected by the Republicans that it still secretly manipulates the 2020 U.S. election.

“Is Google Secretly Manipulating Millions of Votes?”, # by Reason TV, all rignts reserved. 


Furthermore, search engines can help enterprises gain a large number of potential users through online marketing strategies, increase jobs and promote the growth of the online economy. However, according to Zimmer (2006), it has become the normalcy for commercial search companies to highlight the rich, popular and powerful sites because of biases or commercial interests that allow paid search to emphasize the easier access of some information while ignoring the benefits of others. Searchers may find large, popular sites at the top of their search results. The site owners, out of vanity, used their technical and business acumen to acumen to succeed in this ranking “game”. For example, Google, as the main controller of the search engine field nowadays, has been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating antitrust laws. It has been accused of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising. (Fung, 2020) It stifles the competition and innovation between smaller new rivals and Google because it can determine which pages are visible and who are not. In addition, the engine also harms consumers by reducing search quality, limiting privacy protection and alternative search options.

The Difference Between Organic vs Paid Search

“The Difference Between Organic vs Paid Search”, #by Chris Keller, all rights reserved.

Meanwhile, search engines are not only developing as an information tool but also as a kind of social culture and ideas. It quietly mixes various ideologies and values into the search results and application functions. It presents them in a seemingly neutral way, to achieve the purpose of influencing or even manipulating the ideology and values of the audience, forming “information hegemony” in the field of network communication. For example, although Google’s digital library project allows readers to quickly and conveniently read a large number of books that may not have been seen before, in essence, its digital library project has a more profound risk of “information hegemony”. It may impact English cultural hegemony and the diversity of human civilization. Second, even if the digitized books in the library project include other languages, however, t the search rules of the engine are formulated by Google, so all non-English cultural, historical, philosophical and even political interpretation tools are handed over to Google. In response to this information control, France has also responded. It proposes to create a European digital library in Europe as a counterweight to Google’s library plans. They believe that the online library under construction may strengthen the discourse hegemony of the U.S. and that children in the future will grow up in an environment dominated by American language, culture and thinking. (BBC, 2005) Hence, the search engine giant Google, as a significant leader in this field, has had a transformative influence in many aspects.


Benefits and Impacts to the Internet Public

For the general Internet public, the main channel of their access to information has unknowingly shifted from the mass media represented by newspapers, television and broadcast to the Internet with an inestimable amount of information. Search engines have opened the threshold of many information fields for the public. Information is freely acquired, used and shared by users with unprecedented efficiency, which has become an essential infrastructure in contemporary’s information society. When users encounter something that they do not know but need to know immediately in their daily lives, search engines often become the first tool that they think of, as long as users type in the keywords that they want to know, everything will be readily solved. Even in public’s thinking, it seems that there is already a subconscious “search”, as long as there is a need to know the information, it can be solved by finding a search engine. For students, the search engine has become the first choice of a digital platform for students to query academic knowledge and life information. When they are confused, they often turn to search engines for answers or help. For example, Google allows students to find information about research projects.


Search Engine Manipulation Effect — Logan Lenz

However, a fact that cannot be ignored is that while search brings convenience and efficiency, it often hides its other characteristics. Search engines are also full of false and deceptive information. However, students are often not good at spotting false information and misleading websites. It is also similar to the majority of the general Internet public; that is, they do not have the mature skills to judge and investigate the source of information.

“Search Engine Manipulation Effect”, #by Logan Lenz, all rights reserved.

To Conclude

In general, the emergence of search engines has promoted the development of a new social structure, that is, the global network society. Moreover, it has also brought about changes in the Internet landscape and broke through the scope of the search field itself, playing a decisive role in many essential aspects of politics, economy and culture. In this technological transformation, to political positions, commercial interests, and cultural values will benefit from it. Conversely, those in opposition to it are excluded from the benefit. In addition, search engines also promote the dissemination of knowledge and information, and with the continuous innovation of technology and business model, gradually cover the whole field of life of the public. However, the public needs to improve their critical thinking skills to deal with misleading information and manipulated values.




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Epstein, R., & Robertson, R. (2015). The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(33), E4512–E4521.

Fung, B. (2020). Google’s defense against antitrust lawsuit? You. Retrieved 28 October 2020, from

Halavais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search engine society. (pp. 5–31). Wiley.

Introna, L., & Nissenbaum, H. (2000). Defining the Web: the politics of search engines. Computer, 33(1), 54–62.

Introna, L. D., & Nissenbaum, H. (2000). Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters. The Information Society, 16(3), 169–185.

Monticello, J. (2020). Does Google Secretly Manipulate Us To Vote for Democrats? The Evidence Is Flimsy. Retrieved 29 October 2020, from

Pingdom, (2011). The rather petite Internet of 1995. Retrieved 28 October 2020, from,1995%20there%20were%2023%2C500%20websites.

Zimmer, M. (2006). The value implications of the practice of paid search. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 32(2), 23–25.