Search Bias? Information Monopoly? The truth behind the Search Engine

"Wait. How do you REALLY feel about yourself?" by kevinpereira is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Figure 1: Explanation of How Google search works by Google 

Introduction:

Search bias and information monopoly of search engines have become concerns in the digital world. This essay will first introduce the monopoly of the search engine industry. Google then analyzes the impact that will be brought by the search engine. For example, the information monopoly by Google will cause information inequality and search bias; users are hence unable to receive the information that they want or the information from smaller companies. (Noble, 2018) Instead, search engines like Google will prioritize the results of bigger companies. Although leading companies may benefit from its transformative impacts, threats, and concerns towards the society that brought by the search engine cannot be ignored. Besides the macro-view about the impact on society, the search bias and information monopoly affect my daily life, for instance, my study life. Therefore, the possible impacts brought by the search engine will be mainly analyzed on search bias and information monopoly, through Google, the giant of the search engine industry.

Figure 2: Another Explanation of How a Search Engine Works by Code.org 

The Google search engine “employs Spider software or Web crawler to search over the web.” (Arora, 2013) It automatically “crawls” around the internet to search for information from billions of pages across numerous machines. When users type their inquiries, it will be broken down into computer languages which the engines can understand. (Arora, 2013) The rankings of the results are then determined by the Link based algorithm. Page rank, Link popularity, Link reputation are the primary consideration of the ranked results. (Arora, 2013)

Figure 3: Conceptual organization of the typical search engine. From Havalais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search Engine Society (pp. 5–31). Polity Press.

Genesis of Search Engines:

Since internet service and Web 2.0 popularized skyrocketing, the demand for search engines eventually increased, billions of searches are done every day. The use of computing systems provided a crucial basis for how the search engine works. (Havalais, 2013) The concept of using a search engine to find from the internet is just similar to finding a specific book from the library. The earliest computing systems were based on ideas of librarians and filing clerks; however, they were also limited by the technology itself. Hence, computer programmers are forced to write new forms of encoding data digitally and also building new imaginary structures to store the data. (Havalais, 2013) Internet expanded its size in the 1990s, leading by the existence of the World Wide Web. Before the emergence of the World Wide Web, there are some protocols to transfer files between computers, like the File Transfer Protocol and the Gopher System. Then, some early search engines like Archie, Veronica, Wandex were created. Later, newer search engines like SavvySearch, Ask Jeeves, AltaVista existed and provided the service of metasearch, which can query from several search engines, making queries more user-friendly and easier. (Havalais, 2013) In the late 1990s’, the web size had grown rapidly. At the same time, spam and attempt to “manipulating search engines” eventually increased. This gave Google an unintended benefit, and Google has begun its search engine service from 1998 until now.  Although the number of search engines emerged in the 2000s’, for instance, Yahoo Search, Aim, MSN Live, etc., Google still managed to protect its dominance of the market and remains its popularity among the search engines.

 

Here is some extra information about the history of search engine

 

Who has benefited from its transformative effects in a political economic and social sense, and who has not?

Search Bias:

To provide users with convenience and accurate results, search engines use auto-complete functions. Google uses pre-emption to determine the search results for an individual. Search engines such as Google create and perpetuate societal prejudices by putting users into different profiles of ad categories. The autocomplete search engine results perpetuate societal prejudice; nevertheless, the biases can be addressed. In fact, Search engine bases their presumptions on the user’s social class, race, economic status, sexual orientation, and geographic location. These identities provide search engines with control over what individuals search for and the results they obtain by making suggestions through autocomplete search functions (Jarrett, 2014). Moreover, paid results or sponsored links are more likely ranked higher and more visible. (Cornière & Taylor, 2014)

 

Figure 4 : “Google Main Search” by MoneyBlogNewz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Information Monopoly:

Google is acting as an information monopoly in the search engine market. Google gathers privacy data by providing “free” services and tools. For example, Gmail, YouTube, Google search engine etc.. (Noble, 2018) Google trades users’ privacy and personal information to the companies that gain profits from investigating users’ data. However, search engine companies like Google do not protect the users’ private information securely. Instead, Google takes advantage of its dominant position in the search engine field and benefits from the commodification of the internet. (Smyrnaios, 2019) User data hence becomes the capital for Google growing and building more server farms, investigating and developing more to maintain its ownership in this market. (Jarrett, 2014)

Obviously, the search engine company and advertisers are the beneficial sides. Let’s take Google as an example since Google owns and controls the key business in this field. Google has their market share of over 90% in Europe and 65% in the US. (Cornière & Taylor, 2014) Paid results help Google to generate billions of dollars of annual advertising revenue. (Cornière & Taylor, 2014) This advertising method creates a win-win situation for Google and advertisers. Advertisers can do advertisements efficiently and accurately; Google can earn billions. Oppositely, the society has not benefited from its transformative effects, especially it impacts how society members view each other. The relationship between search engines and society is intertwining, which caused search engines are embedded to operate in a complicated social environment. (Carroll, 2014) Beliefs, decisions, values are very likely to be manipulated by the search engine prioritized results. Users are tempted to trust higher ranking results than lower-ranking results. (Epstein, 2015) With twisted and biased autocomplete search results, it casts the minority in different communities in a bad light. In Addition, autocomplete search engine results show discriminatory tendencies that are seen through the impact that they have on biopolitics and the creation of policies that affect the minority groups (Noble, 2018).

 

How has this innovation affected your study or work, and what problems does it present to you?

Both search bias practice and collecting private information indirectly and directly affect my study, however, those impacts are not negative only. Google search engine uses auto-complete function to make the searching progress more efficient. For example, when searching the accommodation around the University of Sydney, the search engine suggested auto-completed some results like portal, login, best Sydney Uni accommodation, etc. Jarrett (2014) notes that Google uses past data and internet activities to tailor search results to the user and to determine the user’s intention. The auto-complete function indeed shortened the searching time for users, which users can directly reach their destinations. However, on the other hand, the search engine ranked the paid results higher and it forms search bias. From a student’s point of view, the search engine does not provide me the cheapest accommodation choice, but the sponsored results, also some accommodation services that are provided by private companies. Moreover, privacy leakage is a concern for a MECO student while using search engines. As mentioned above, Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, etc., those “free” services require our personal information and trades those data to the companies that make profits from the privacy data. (Noble, 2018) Thus, users have to accept the fact that their data might be sold to companies or leaked, which makes me feel unsecured.

Figure 5: Screenshot of Sydney Uni accommodation search results -Yiu Ting Chim, 2020.

 

 

Figure 6: Screenshot of Sydney Uni accommodation search autocomplete suggestions -Yiu Ting Chim, 2020.

Conclusion

In this essay, the genesis of search engines and how search engines work have been first introduced. Then, the effects brought by the search engine are also analyzed later. Through the introduction of search engines genesis, the development of the search engine, the concept of the search engine, and how Google starts its leading position can be observed. Search bias and information monopoly impact different stakeholders, like the Google itself, advertisers, internet users and the society. Search bias shapes the society in an indirect method. However, it may twist users’ value and opinion by auto-complete results and discriminated minority groups by bias on majority data. Information monopoly allows Google to own internet users’ data and privacy, then to sell them to data allocating companies to gain profit, at the same time predicting users’ activities while they are using the services that are provided by Google. Moreover, those practices even affect my study life, like when I was searching for accommodation near the university, auto-complete function suggested me “login”, “portal”, etc. The results Google provided first were some paid results which may affect my decisions if I were finding places to live. To conclude, the efficiency brought by the search engine is actually a “trade”, and it is the truth behind the search engine.

 

References

  1. Arora, M. (2013). How Google Search Engine Works. In Electronic For You (pp. 90-93). Cengage Learning, Inc.
  2. Carroll, N. (2014) In Search We Trust: Exploring how Search Engines are Shaping Society. In International Journal of Knowledge Society Research, 5(1), January-March 2014 (pp. 12-27). University of Limerick.
  3. Cornière, A. & Taylor, G. (2014) Integration and search engine bias. In RAND Journal of Economics, September 2014, Vol. 45(3), (pp. 576-597).
  4. Epstein, R. (2015) The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, August 18, 2015, Vol.112(33), (pp.E4512-E4521). American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Vista, CA 92084
  5. Havalais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search Engine Society (pp. 5–31). Polity Press.
  6. 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.
  7. Noble, S. (2018). A society searching. In Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism (pp. 15–63). New York University.
  8. Smyrnaios, N. (2019) Google as an Information Monopoly, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies,23:4, 442-446, DOI: 10.1080/17409292.2019.1718980.

 

Embedded content References

  1. Featured image: kevinpereira, 2010. Wait. How do you REALLY feel about yourself?. [online] Flickr. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/14592161@N06/4264458679
  2. Figure 1: Google, 2019. How Google Search Works (in 5 minutes). [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/0eKVizvYSUQ
  1. Figure 2: Code.org, 2017. The Internet: How Search Works. [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/LVV_93mBfSU
  2. Figure 4: MoneyBlogNews, 2010. Google Main Search [online] Flickr. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/14592161@N06/4264458679

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Yiu Ting Chim 3 Articles
Major in Digital Culture, Minor in Film Studies. Overseas Student from Hong Kong Second Year USYD Student