Things You Do Not Know Behind Search Engines

A search bar with all black background
"Search Bar" by Baptist Union of Great Britain is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

If you want to find a good café nearby, Google it. If you want to find a TV series, Google it. If you need to get study materials, Google it. Google has already become an unseparated part of our daily lives, but do you know that how people search before Google, who controls search engines and how they benefit from it, and are we as users being controlled by the search engines?

 

Since Vannevar Bush talked about his imaginary information-search machine named ‘memex’ in his article ‘As We May Think’ in 1945, the pioneers were keeping trying to make efforts on changing the information-searching environment (Levene, 2010, p3). Till today, the way people communicating and getting information have had a revolutionary transformation as the innovations of the Web and search engines, and the whole society has both benefited and lost in this transformative process. This web essay will introduce the history of search engines, and how its genesis influences the historical trends in transformations of information management; and discuss how Google benefits from it as the key business in this field, and what losses it brings to the users from three aspects of politics, economy and society.

 

Search Before Google

The term ‘Search Engine’ can be defined as an information-retrieval system that designed to search the World Wide Web for needed information including indexical webpages, multimedia articles, images and other types of files from its database according to the keyword users typed in the search bar (Halavais, 2013, p6). It took decades for search engines to evolve into what we see today with the efforts of generations.

As we have mentioned above, in 1945, Vannevar Bush first describes his imaginary information retrieval machine called ‘memex’ which provided a basic direction for the future innovation of hypertext. In his article ‘As We May Think’ published in The Atlantic Monthly, he said,

“All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

 

Vannevar Bush sitting by a table
Vannevar Bush” by UltimateLibrarian is        licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

a imagery image of memex
Memex” by mariebeysson is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

 

Twenty years later, in1965 the term ‘hypertext’ was first coined by Ted Nelson who made a great contribution on materializing the Web by viewing his hypertext system, Xanadu, as a publishing material available for both private and public (Levene, 2010, p4).

 

In 1990, the first search engine in the world was invented by Alan Emtage, called Archie. Archie was using FTP (File Transfer Protocol) indexing to simply guide people to find specific files through the word they typed in the search bar, which the interface is pretty similar with Google today, but it is not stable. Today you can still access Archie at http://archie.icm.edu.pl/archie-adv_eng.html.

 

first search engine Archie
Archie First Search Engine’ By Mike Mulvaney. All rights reserved.

 

Finally, in 1991, the world first web browser, World Wide Web, was created by Tim Berner-Lee who finished the transformation of turning the vision of hypertext into the reality by using the three conventions that we are still using today:

“(i) the URL (unified resource locator) to identify web pages, (ii) HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) to exchange messages between a browser and web server, and (iii) HTML (hypertext markup language) to display web pages” (Levene, 2010, p4).

The invention of the World Wide Web took the first step to start the ‘query’ society by completely changes the way of information management into computer organization.  

Tim Berner-Lee with his World Wide Web
“Tim Berners Lee” by freeasinfreedom is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

For more detailed information, here is a YouTube video below from The Science Elf that explains how search engines evolved and introduce more search engines before Google. 

Who Controls

From the Tweet from News 18 Graphics, Google has giant power to dominate the global search engines market with 92.3% of market share, and processes over 3.5 billion searches per day (View more in Google Search Statistics from Internet Live Stats). The dominance of Google causes potential damages to users. 

 

Who Benefits and Who loses

Nowadays, search engines are gathering users’ preferences and geographic location to create a database of intention which provides personalized search to the users, to improve competitiveness ostensibly, but also brings serious threats to the interests of users (Jarrett, 2014, p18).

 

From Political …

Government is one of the beneficiaries because the database of search engine greatly makes it easier to track user’s private information for its own interests, whilst the users have completely become the victim in this political game. For example, the U.S. government clandestine surveillance operation codenamed PRISM was accused of stealing the carte blanche access to unmediated user data from Google’s databases with Google’s assistance of providing a ‘back door’ to its databases, which aroused people’s concerns of the lack of protection of their privacy online (Jarrett, 2014, p18). You can read This Investigation on PRISM to get more information.

 

From Economic …

Our data is not only attractive for politics, Google as the giant of the global search engine market also actively gathers users’ data for commercial purpose because of its huge potential profits in the current new media era.

“The gathering of user information is the backbone of digital media economics.” Jarrett (2014) states. Even if Google has developed a variety of derived web services such as Google Scholar and Google Docs, the most basic and main models are advertising revenue models. When you are visiting a free site, your data has become your cost to exchange the information you want actively or passively, which is gathered by Google to gain benefits by selling it to third-party advertisers and marketers as the exchange-valued commodity in the web market. More ironically, the advertisements will then be recommended to you via Google or other social media platforms according to your preferences Google gathered. Again, the users become the victim controlled by digital media while Google has benefited from the transformative process of information management.

Have a look at the video below from Neil Patel to get a brief understanding of Google’s business model.

 

From Society

The innovation of search engine has made the way of searching information much more convenience than before which all users have benefited from it, while the social prejudice issues reflected on search engines have damaged the minority group of people’s rights such as the bias on autocomplete queries and the image search. Since search engines are using algorithms to rank and display the queries or images depends on their popularity, the minority has been misrepresented by the search engine which is dominated by majority and presents the majority’s views (Noble, 2018).

Advertisement for UN Women of bias on search engines
Advertisement for UN Women created by Memac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai. All rights reserved.

 

How Has Search Engines Affected Me

Positive 

Nowadays, our study cannot leave search engines. We need to access Canvas, Email, Zoom through to communicate with teachers and classes. Search engines also provide a more convenient and quicker platform for me to access the study materials through Google Scholar and university library, and it saves time of searching resources via the search bar to help me study more efficiently. And as a person who is not good at finding directions, Google Maps have become my best partner on road.

Negative

As an Asian Female, I was sometimes troubled by the prejudice on search engines that misrepresent our views and culture. And the prejudiced speech on search engines is much more vicious and pervasive than real life, which almost makes me doubt some appearance of friendliness. Furthermore, to access some websites when necessary, I need to create an account on that web which makes my mailbox and messages full of advertisements.

 

To Conclude…

Overall, from the analysis above, our ways of communicating and searching information have had a revolutionary transformation since the innovation of search engines. The Government and Google which the dominance of the search engines have become the biggest beneficiaries from the transformative effect by taking advantage of profitability of users’ database, while the ordinary internet users’ privacy is threatened and getting controlled by the powerful digital media, which is in dire need of policy protection. In additions to the privacy issue, search engines have also made both positive and negative effects on internet users’ lives. For example, it provides a helpful platform that students can quickly access the study materials they need; it helps people find correct direction with Google Maps, whereas hurting minority’s rights due to the social prejudice issues. 

 

Reference List

Bush, V. (1945). As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly; 176: pp. 101-108.

Gellman, B., & Poitras, L. (2013). U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program. Retrieved 29 October 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html

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

Jarrett, K. (2014). A database of intention. In Society of the query reader: Reflections on web search (pp. 16–29). Amsterdam: Institute of networked cultures.

Levene, M. (2010). Introduction. In An introduction to search engines and web navigation (2nd ed.) (pp. 1-8). John Wiley. ISBN: 9780470526842

Noble, S. U. (2018). A society, searching. In Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism (pp. 15–63). New York University. ISBN: 9781479837243

Patel, N. (2020, March 22). How Does Google Make Money? Google Business Model Explained [Video]. YouTube. URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh_h2l74lW4&list=LL&index=1

The Science Elf. (2018, February 4). Search Before Google [Video]. YouTube. URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vQXHdlTMok&list=LL&index=2

 

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About Katy Li 4 Articles
Second year at USYD. Majoring Film Studies and Digital Culture. Studying 'Internet Transformations' this semester.