Hey Google, Can You Tell Me The Truth?

Introduction

A search engine is an information retrieval system that allows for keyword searches of distributed digital text (Havalais, 2013). It allows people to seek a wealth of information in seconds. Using several keywords, people can retrieve answers that are of interest or value without going the need to search multiple sources or to read extensive literature. Today, search engine technology is embedded in our daily lives. According to Smyrnaio, devices, networks, and online services have become useful additions to society, but these systems have also invaded our personal and professional lives and our public expression (Smyrnaio, 2019).

The focus of this essay

This essay will focus on the most powerful player of the search engine market, Google. Google dominates the world’s search engines, receiving 63,000 searches per second. Google has transformed the information management in modern society. This essay will present the argument that Google is using its power in a negative way to manipulate people and gain significant economic benefit. Generally, younger generations are more aware of the biases and tracking abilities of search engines, which can influence their choice of engine. This knowledge is from growing up in the digital age and having a widespread exposure (Hargittai, 2010).  This is in contrast to older generations, who are less aware of these issues and have a greater inherent trust in search engines as benign entities.

The genesis of Google

According to Havalais, metadata being the creation and maintenance of information, has been with us as early as the 20th century BCE. The Babylonian library at Nippur used a popular index known as Dewey Decimal system. It was a classification based on the subject matter of the book, which made literature easy to locate (Havalais, 2013). These library systems have formed the basis of search engines today.

 

In 1998, Sergei Brin and Larry Page designed Google to be the “perfect search engine”. In their mission statement, they hoped it would “understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want.” (Google, 2006).  When Google was introduced, the idea of search changed (Anderson, J. 2018). The Eight Pillars of Innovation highlight how Google has continued to grow exponentially. Iteration has allowed Google to keep ahead in the market and take future steps based on past data.

The role of Google in influencing information management

Google implicitly invites each of us to reimagine ourselves as searchers (Hillis, 2013), similar to contemporary explorers, such as Captain Cook and Neil Armstrong. Each Google search produces a unique path, where the searcher branches and forks through Google’s seemingly ordered universe of data. Google has made the information clear and simple to use, as illustrated by the quote:

“Not only do people expect to see a search box, they expect it to behave in standard ways: anything outside of the expected will frustrate the average web user” (Hillis, 2013).

Due to its status as a monopoly search engine, Google has set the expectations and standard for all search engines.

The ownership and control of Google as a business

According to Havalais, Google is an advertisement for its own profitability. Google’s Search profits continue to grow. Google are able to harvest statistics through the sale of large quantities of information on social demographic data, interests and intentions, making the company deep in surveillance capitalism (Smyrnaio, 2019). Google has power to trade our personal information for free services offered by Google i.e. the search engine, Gmail, Google Scholar and YouTube. (Noble, 2018) In 2018, Google recorded $4.2 billion worth of gross billings, with $3.6 billion related to advertising.

 

The beneficiaries of Google

Google equalises knowledge, enabling all users to have the ability to access information easily and quickly. The key beneficiaries of Google are in fact Google and those who market to its users. Internet enables global populations to intersect closely. It is also a powerful catalyst for innovation, economic growth and social well-being (Box, S., West, J. 2016).

 

The downside to Google

Google has the potential for positive use but it can be used in a negative fashion, creating political, economic and social complications through misuse of personal data (Yeo, 2016).

  • Political

Mager states ‘Capitalist spirit gets embedded in search algorithms’ and evolves every year (Jarret, 2014). The female researcher Jarrett who herself had no intention ‘of seeking a termination’ conducted an experiment and searched for the term ‘abortion’ in three different countries; Australia, Ireland, and the U.S (Jarrett, 2014). The results were skewed based on the geographical address. For months afterwards, she received multiple advertisements relating to a UK health service for terminations. Therefore, the intention of Jarrett’s search was incorrectly received.  This experiment shows obvious faults in the search algorithm. Upon reflection, clicking on advertisements and links which look appealing gives surveillance capitalists greater control over your political stance. I believe that while everyone can be targeted by surveillance capitalists, generally more vulnerable people and the older population would be more susceptible to clicking on targeted links. It is alarming because search results reflect the values and norms of Google’s advertisers and can subliminally become our beliefs, which can propagate the circulation of these ideas, and become normalised.

  • Economic

The original Internet was not intended for commercial use (Smyrnaio, 2019). The search engine has expanded beyond its original intent as an information retrieval system. The current configuration is a sophisticated economic infrastructure to attract our attention. Google biases search to its own economic interests, for its profitability (Noble, S. 2018). Google displays advertisements (GoogleAdSense) tailored to your search. This behaviour was termed ‘attention economy’ by Hebert Simon in 1971. This has been described by Bermejo below:

“… searches and advertising seem like a natural fit. If the role of advertising is to show consumers what they do not have, and convince them that they should have it, search is a means for users towards getting what they do not have: information, products, etc” (Bermejo, 2009; Anderson, J. 2018)

According to StatCounter, Google currently makes up 92% of searches worldwide. In 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched compliance issues against Google for misusing people’s data.

Graph of Search Engine Market Shares
Google’s domination in Search Engine Market Shares 
  • Social and Cultural

Google exhibits discriminatory behaviour with regard to race and gender. Terms like ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are profitable under our system of racialised capitalism (Havalais, 2013). Safiya Noble’s book “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism” looks at how discrimination against black women is encoded into the operation of Google. In 2011, Noble’s first encounter with racism was searching the term ‘Black woman’ on Google and receiving pornographic images. This underscores women’s’ historical and contemporary lack of status in society. Women are being negatively defined by a technological system, which does not account for the social, political and historical significance of racist and sexist representations (Noble, 2018). As Google places these search results at the forefront, it makes it easier for some people to believe that what exists on the first page is true. This is also known as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

In the video below, Safia Noble shares her thoughts on how search engines are perpetuating racism:

Reflection and conclusion

Google has made information readily available and has revolutionised my studies. For everyday searches, I have found more ways to find answers other than just ‘Googling it’. I am more wary of my search behaviour and since taking ARIN2610, have switched to Duck Duck Go. I like its privacy policy and non-bias search results. It does not store data about you or your searches. However, I am still not used to the user interface as it does feel more complicated than Google. I believe we have to become more aware of our everyday searches and educate those around us about the worrying side of Google.

In conclusion, although Google has benefits for users, these are outweighed by its power being used in harmful ways, which many users, especially older generations, are unaware of.

 

Bibliography

Andersen, J. (2018). “Archiving, ordering, and searching: search engines, algorithms, databases, and deep mediatization.” Media, Culture & Society 40(8): 1135-1150.

Box, S., West, J. (2016)  “Economic and Social Benefits of Internet Openness” OECD Digital Economy Papers No. 257: 1-110

Hargittai, E. (2010). “Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”*.” Sociological Inquiry 80(1): 92-113

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

Hillis, K. (2013). “Google and the culture of search”. New York, Routledge.

Janet Abbate (2017) “What and where is the Internet? (Re)defining Internet histories, Internet Histories”. 1 (1-2): 8-14

Jarrett, Kylie (2014) “A Database of Intention. In Society of the Query Reader: Reflections on Web Search”. Konig R and Rasch M (eds). Amsterdam: Institute of Networked Cultures. 16-29

Kelty, Christopher M. (2014) “The Fog of Freedom”. In T. Gillespie, P. J. Boczkowski and K. A. Foot (Eds.) Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. MIT Press. pp196-220

Moffat, V. R. (2009). “Regulating search”. Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 22(2): 475.

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

Smyrnaios, N. (2019). “Google as an Information Monopoly.” Contemporary French and francophone studies 23(4): 442-446.

Yeo, S. (2016). “Geopolitics of search: Google versus China?” Media, Culture & Society. 38(4): 591-605.

Images (in order)

Featured image: Google server trouble snarls YouTube, Snapchat., (2019) Retrieved from: https://r3.rappler.com/technology/news/232104-google-server-outage-june-2019.

Solen Feyissa. (2020). Retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/UWVJaDvXW_c

Daniel Mennerich. (2008). Flikr. Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielmennerich/48448411137

Search Engine Market Share. (2020). Retrieved from: https://gs.statcounter.com/search-engine-market-share 

A Network of People (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://www.pikrepo.com/fbvxi/a-network-of-people-business-people-abstract-illustration

Video

Thrive Global. (2018). Your Search Engine Results Could Be Perpetuating Racism. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7izBd0m3EM&feature=emb_title

 

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About Ramona Codd-Miller 5 Articles
3rd year Design Computing student at The University of Sydney