How search engines are manipulating your “objective” decisions

"Google Search" by karlnorling is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You may think that you are making objective decisions on the internet. But think again, you may be manipulated.

This article brings awareness of the powerful impact search engines have on the economic, political and social spheres, and how it can impact you in your daily lives.

So, what are search engines?

A search engine, in a basic definition refers to an information retrieval system admitting keyword searches of digital texts that are distributed (Halavais, 2013). The most popular search engine is of course, Google, including various other Google sites which are the most visited on the web (Halavais, 2013).

The history behind it…

As stated by Campbell-Kelley & Aspray (1996), in 1823, the British government identified the need to effectively replace human “calculators”, so they funded a development by Charles Babbage who designed the very first mechanical computer (Halavais, 2013).

“Babbage’s Analytical Engine” by Rosa Menkman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A metaphor of a search engine back in the day could be known as the “Wooten desk”. This is an expensive piece of office furniture that comprised of hundreds of pigeonholes, that could also be locked for security and privacy (Halavais, 2013).

The early computer systems relied on the ideas and assistance of filing clerks and librarians. However, due to technological advancements, computer programmers instead used the stacks and queues of data, and created new methods of encoding data, with imagined structures keeping that data (Halavais, 2013). Instead of physical filing cabinets, these data collections are able to be cross-indexed and arranged more effectively than the physical versions. This development of information search is still a rapidly progressing subfield of computer science today (Halavais, 2013).

The influence of these search engines – the “filter bubble”

Now that we are conscious of the genesis of search engines, it’s time to be aware of how it may influence us and those around us. Research by Epstein et al., (2017) suggests that compared to those who read newspapers and watch television, those who use social media and search engines are more likely to be influenced.

This is stemmed from the advantages that online media has over traditional media including:

  1. It is a platform for a large scale that is available constantly
  2. Being able to shape persuasive strategies by investigating the behaviour of users
  3. Users feel a sense of control as they are in charge of the digital system, enhancing their vulnerability to be influenced (Epstein et al., 2017).

Search engines have also gained the public’s trust, with 64% of users revealing that they trust search engines, in contrast to 57% for traditional media (Epstein et al., 2017). Researchers have also stated that personalisation algorithms can aggravate the selective exposure phenomenon, where people find information that endorses their beliefs (Epstein et al., 2017). This is known as the “internet filter bubble” phrased by Eli Pariser, to portray people being stuck in a chamber of digital information that confirms their existing attitudes and beliefs (Epstein et al., 2017).

Who benefits from this?

Economics are involved in this too

Brands are taking advantage of search engines and their algorithms. As stated by Wu et al. (2005), along with the increasing significance of searches, they play greater roles as vital links between companies that use the web to build their brand and reach their target audience (Dou et al., 2010).

As Delany (2006) states, this is done when:

  1. Firstly, companies pay to get their website links shown in the “sponsored section” on the page of search engine results
  2. Secondly, companies then aim to drive up the rankings of their websites through changing the arrangement of the sites, or by employing external consultants to acquire specific methods that will instigate the search engines to index their websites into higher rankings (Dou et al., 2010).
Search engines can generate profits through commercial processes “Profits Key” by Got Credit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Who is affected?

Your search engine may be making the decision for the vote… and not you

For presidential US elections, 50% of them win with vote margins that were under 7.6%. Voters that are undecided can make the whole difference, which is the reason why on the days before the election, a vast amount of resources are dedicated to them (Epstein & Robertson, 2015). With users appearing to trust search engines, particularly Google, the ‘search engine manipulation effect’ can influence directly on voter choices and therefore impact election results (Trevisan et al., 2018). This occurs when search engine rankings are biased toward one candidate and can therefore influence the preferences of voters who are undecided (Epstein & Robertson, 2015). An example of this could be the upcoming Trump and Biden election, where one voter who is undecided could be looking at search engine results, and then be influenced to make their decision based on them.

“Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Autocomplete and societal attitudes

When we type up keywords in the search bar, we are mostly all familiar with the drop-down menu with autocomplete results trying to predict what you want to search. However, this seemingly innocent function has had a major impact on revealing societal attitudes.  An example of this is the attitudes towards women, which brought about a campaign by the United Nations, incorporating “genuine Google searches” (Noble, 2018). This was done to bring awareness about the discriminatory and sexist ways women were viewed and deprived of human rights (Noble, 2018). This is the campaign in the video below:

“The Autocomplete Truth” by UN Women 

This represents Google’s algorithmic formulations of people and their ideas (Noble, 2018). As we know, Google can prioritise search results, such as promoting businesses. In this case, with the combination of companies that paid advertisements to be in the search results, and the searches of users, it has led to representations of women that underline their contemporary and historical lower status in society, ranked in visible places on a search engine page. This is representative of how traditional views transfer into new media (Noble, 2018).

Consequences of having answers at your fingertips

Search engines may be affecting our memory. Conveniently, we no longer have to go through lengthy efforts to find information that we need. However, the results of four studies by Sparrow, Liu & Wegner (2011) found that when people are faced with challenging questions, they first think of computers. When they expect that they have access to information in the future, the rates of recall of information are lower, with a heightened recall for where to find it instead. This reveals that the internet has become the main method of external memory, where information is kept outside of ourselves instead (Sparrow, Liu & Wegner, 2011).

“Google Exam” by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How has it affected me?

Search engines are definitely a huge part of my daily life. In my free time I am able to connect with friends through social media, such as on Facebook and Instagram, and search up sites for entertainment such as YouTube and Netflix. If I want to meet new people for friends, I am able to go on the “friends” section for Bumble, or people to date, I can go on Hinge or TanTan. When doing my Uni assignments, I am able to do a “vertical search” to get onto databases like Google Scholar, ProQuest and Factiva, which has made my life so much easier. In my retail work life, we have a website that we can refer to for our timeslips and policies. Overall in my daily life search engines have been convenient for me, as it would be for many people. However, it is important to be aware about how search engines can manipulate decisions, as they could be influencing you without your awareness.

“Facebook Website Screenshot” by Spencer E Holtaway is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Conclusively, the advancement of information retrieval and storage technologies have had a major impact on the development of society. With the introduction of search engines, they have had major implications on the economic, political and social spheres, with brands consuming ad revenue, elections being influenced, and societal attitudes being reflected on these search result pages. It is evident that it can also affect your own memory of information recall. This demonstrates that more people need to be aware and think again about how much they trust these search engines, as it will only continue to advance as time goes on.

 

References

Dou, W., Lim, K. H., Su, C., Zhou, N., & Cui, N. (2010). Brand positioning strategy using search engine marketing. MIS quarterly, 34(2), 261-279.

Epstein, R., & Robertson, R. E. (2015). The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(33), E4512-E4521. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1419828112

Epstein, R., Robertson, R. E., Lazer, D., & Wilson, C. (2017). Suppressing the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 1(CSCW), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1145/3134677

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. ISBN: 9781479837243

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776-778. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1207745

Trevisan, F., Hoskins, A., Oates, S., & Mahlouly, D. (2018). The Google voter: search engines and elections in the new media ecology. Information, Communication & Society, 21(1), 111-128. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2016.1261171

Embedded References

Epstein, R., Robertson, R. E., Lazer, D., & Wilson, C. (2017). Suppressing the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 1(CSCW), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1145/3134677

Fischer, P., & Greitemeyer, T. (2010). A New Look at Selective-Exposure Effects: An Integrative Model. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(6), 384-389.

Mann, W. (1917). U.S. Patent No. 1,217,973. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

UN women. (2013, November 18). UN Women – The Autocomplete Truth [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/IkNlGuW-0g8

Yu, J. (2015, May 15). Search is more than Google: Mastering vertical search optimization. Search Engine Land. Retrieved from https://searchengineland.com/search-is-more-than-google-mastering-vertical-search-optimization-298123

Zanker, M., Rook, L., & Jannach, D. (2019). Measuring the impact of online personalisation: Past, present and future. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 131, 160-168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2019.06.006

 

Patricia Jacobs
About Patricia Jacobs 2 Articles
I study Digital Cultures and Socio-legal in Bachelor of Arts. I enjoy taking photos and eating Japanese food in my spare time!