Search Engines — Innovations or Invasions?

Search engines
Various search engines options to choose. Image: DATA ETHICS. All rights reserved.

Search engines can be considered as one of the most successful Internet innovation in the 20th century. This essay examines the genesis of search engines and discusses its development within Internet information management. The leading search engines company, Google, will be analysed to see how it controls the search market by applying its unique algorithm ‑ PageRank. Also, in the case where people around the globe commonly use search engines, the exploration of the beneficiaries from searching is imperative to see the actual effects of search engines bring. This essay claims that due to the commercialization of search engines, advertisers and search engines are the hidden winners while users are just the medium of exchange of wealth. Moreover, search engines also socially decimated against the minority people, and female in colour will be most impacted.

The origin of search engines:

Search engines can be defined as the online platform, which provides keyword search function through information retrieval (Halavais, 2013, p.5).

The Born of Archive

Technically, the invention of the first search engine – Archive,  can be traced back to 1990, when it was designed in institutions to facilitate the search of academic documents (John, 2005, p.53). The invention of Archive marks the progress in the search engines field, however, being the product before the emergence of World Wide Web (John, 2005, p.53), Archive is an unsophisticated model compares with the smart modern search engines.

Archive as the Ancestor

The primary restriction imposed on Archive is, Archive merely directs the searchers who know the exact name of their sought file to the location of that file which stored on the file transfer protocol (FTP) serve, rather than index the file’s contents straightforwardly (Seymour, Frantsvog & Kumar, 2011, p.49). Despite the non-indexical structure of Archive, it has inspired the later development of search engines with its innovating architecture of automatically crawl and collect information and resources, and build index listings of the search results (John, 2005, p.53).

How search engines operate
                 How search engines operate. Image: Host Gator. All rights reserved.

The launch of Archive sets the stage for the growth of search engines, according to the WorldStream’s report, various search engines such as Infoseek, Yahoo!, and Google has successively come out around the globe with gradually advanced techniques and more versatile functions.

Search Engines as a Form of Information Management:

Looking back upon the historical development of the Internet, the rapidly expanding scale of the web brings astronomical amounts of information, which exceeds the amounts of contents that can be effortlessly browsed (Halavais, 2013, p.13). Hence, information management is imperative to solve the contradictions between the overloaded information and the incapability of people to browse continuously increasing contents.

Tracing back the pre-web search engines such as Archive to the modern search engines like Google, they all cater user’s demand to seek the required information from the pool with limited attention (Halavais, 2013, p.69). An article by Moz Pro’s Britney Muller (2020), discusses that the inherent architecture of search engines which comprehensively scouring for information through various sites, index and rank the results, inevitably makes search engines become the pathway to distribute the massive information to the required searcher.

 

Who dominates the search engine market today?

Taking a closer look at the existing search engine market, according to the statistics provided by Global Stats (2020), Google enjoys the absolute advantage by holding 92% worldwide market share alongside with processing 3.5 millions of search per day (Mohsin, 2020), which all proves it is undoubtedly leading the search engine domain.

What Makes Google Successful?

Google’s dominance owes much to its preeminent algorithm – PageRank. PageRank ranks the search results based on their importance and relevance, which is evaluated by the quantity and quality of links associated with that web page  (Brin & Page, 1998). Due to the scarcity of searcher’s attention and the wish to gain information without a struggle (Halavais, 2013, p.69), most searchers reckon a search is successful if the top search results can fulfil their objectives (Goldman, 2006). Therefore, the application of PageRank meets users’ search habits and enhances their search experiences, thus can attract large users.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meonLcN7LD4  (Spanning Tree  2020 How Google’s PageRank Algorithm Works, Standard YouTube licence)

 

Why Google stands out?

In the shadow of Google, the chances of other search engines to surpass Google in the short run is next to impossible. According to the search engines familiarity defined by Halavais (2013, p.83), searchers are inclined to stick to a fixed search engine and will shift to another only if obvious benefits exist. Considering the current search engine industry where Google ranks top in terms of the user’s satisfaction (Clement, 2020), it is difficult for other search engines to take market shares from Google, let alone to match it. In this case, users are also invisibly bounded to choose Google as the search tool to gain outstanding search experiences. Google’s monopoly not just put pressure on its counterparts, both also increases user’s dependence, which might arouse potential problems.

 

Who benefits from search engines innovations, and who does not?

Political Economies Perspective

For being one of the most popular websites, search engines’ popularity proves its commercial value which effectively attracts advertisers. Google as the search engines giant carries the highest traffic, advertisements which rank at the top in the search result can gain impressive exposure and generate revenue, so advertisers are willing to pay Google to have a higher rank on the site (John, 2015, p. 191).

Google is commercial
Google is actually a commercial website. Image: Chris Winfield. All rights reserved.

The attention economy is the logic behind, as Halavais (2013, pp.70-71) discusses, users’ pay most attention to the top search results, so their attention is scared and valuable. Search engines then commodify this attention and deal with the advertisers to generate income. In this case, advertisers and enterprises are search engines’ premier customers and the beneficiaries of users’ attention, and the search engine itself benefits from the revenue through advertising.

 

Ads on Google search results page
How advertisements place on Google search results page. Image: WSI. All rights reserved.

Influencing by commercialization, the search quality heavily determined by the advertiser’s interest rather than the users’ demands (Noble, 2018, p. 41). For instance, a site can easily rank top in the search and gain lots of clicks regardless of its usefulness and relevance, as long as it pays enough money to the search engine company. Search engines exploit users’ attention and send them to advertisers, and the alienated attention is being used by advertisers and react upon the users themselves (Jarrett, 2014, p. 19).  It can be said that average users are not beneficiaries but consumed by the game of capitalism.

 

Social Perspective

Except for the economic effects, socially speaking, search engines intend to satisfy the majority of people’s demand, so the search results often cater to the majorities’ interests and neglect the minorities.  White elites are assumed to be the core clients, so search engines like Google prioritize websites which pander to elites’ beliefs (Goldman, 2006, p.193). On the contrary, Assistant Professor Johnathan Cohn (2019), from the University of Alberta, argues that the minorities, especially women in colour are continually facing misrepresentation and underrepresentation in search results.

The study conducted by Scholar Safiya Noble shows Google has reinforced the social biases existed in the traditional mass media, where females are often the victims of being objectified sexually (Noble,  2018, p. 58). Hence, search engines emphasise and reflect the existing social hierarchy, where the majority can still benefit due to their existing social predominance, and the minorities are still being discriminated.

Safiya Umoja Noble gives her speech about bias towards black girls appeared on the search results caused by the algorithm.  Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXuJ8yQf6dI  (TEDx Talks 2020 How biased are our algorithms? | Safiya Umoja Noble | TEDxUIUC, Standard YouTube licence)

 

Conclusion:

Search engines are a force to be reckoned with in the domain of Internet innovations which significantly facilitate people’s surfing experiences, also develop new functions to accommodate people’s search behaviours. A classic example would be that Google uses PageRank to order the search results by their relevance and importance. However, search engines also manipulate the search results to please advertisers, and users are being consumed to boost the advertising revenue of search engines. The inherent core nature of capitalism determines that search engines will never put users’ demand in the first place. Besides, the need to cater to the majority’s interest to gain popularity determines that discrimination against minorities is acceptable. Hopefully, in the future search engines can equally serve its users, and get the right balance between moral ethics and capitalism.

 

Bibliography:

Brin, S., & Page, L. (1998). The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine. Computer Networks And ISDN Systems, 30(1-7), 107-117. doi: 10.1016/s0169-7552(98)00110-x

Clement, J. (2020). U.S. online portal & search user satisfaction 2020 | Statista. Retrieved 28 October 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/273900/user-satisfaction-with-us-internet-portals/

Cohn, J. (2020). Google’s algorithms discriminate against women and people of colour. Retrieved 30 October 2020, from https://theconversation.com/googles-algorithms-discriminate-against-women-and-people-of-colour-112516

Goldman, E. (2006). Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism. Yale Journal Of Law And Technology, 8(1), 188-200.

Halavais, A. (2013). Attention. In A. Halavais, Search engine society (pp. 5-31). Hoboken : Wiley.

Halavais, A. (2013). The Engines. In A. Halavais, Search engine society (pp. 5-31). Hoboken : Wiley.

Jarrett, K. (2014). A Database of Intention?. In R. König & M. Rasch, Society of the Query Reader: Reflections on Web Search (pp. 16-29). Institute of Network Cultures, 2014.

Mohsin, M. (2020). 10 Google Search Statistics You Need to Know in 2020 | Oberlo. Retrieved 28 October 2020, from https://au.oberlo.com/blog/google-search-statistics#:~:text=We%20know%20that%20there’s%20a,queries%20every%20second%20on%20average.

Muller, B. (2020). How Search Engines Work: Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking | Beginner’s Guide to SEO. Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/how-search-engines-operate

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

Search Engine Market Share Worldwide | StatCounter Global Stats. (2020). Retrieved 30 October 2020, from https://gs.statcounter.com/search-engine-market-share

Seymour, T., Frantsvog, D., & Kumar, S. (2011). History Of Search Engines. International     Journal Of Management & Information Systems (IJMIS), 15(4), 47-57. doi: 10.19030/ijmis.v15i4.5799

Zixin Wang
About Zixin Wang 3 Articles
A USYD Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in Digital Cultures and Accounting. I love social media, movies, and I love to explore every new technology in the digital era.