It’s hard to imagine a modern world without the thought of finding information on whatever topic you please at the simple click of a button yet this simple notion of bringing the right to information to everyone is a reality. A reality that may seem at first glance paramount to functioning modern society but in recent years the humble search engine has been dominated by Google, easily the most popular search engine dominating the market today controlling over 90% of it and accounting for 63,000 searches a second. Google today is much different than it was when it was first created now more reflective of an advertising company disguised as a search engine. Due to the sheer dominance of this company Google has the ability to dictate social discourse through their algorithms which give the more popular websites and the websites who pay google to be popular the top ranks on the page. These increasing algorithmic biases, now the new norm, are hurting how people critically think.
The Genesis of the search engine
To understand the early world wide web and the innovation of search engines we must look at what came before. When faced with problems that call for research of science and history to understand how to solve it humans have always turned to forms of information technologies as Halavais(2007) states, “in libraries, in large businesses, and eventually on the world wide web.” LIbrarians can be considered to be an early form of the search engine as they created the metadata/records to locate an information source in a timely manner through shelf locations For the person wishing to locate it the most popular forms of which were the Dewey decimal system and the library of congress system (Halavais, 2007).
The digitisation of information
When the modern computer was originally invented they built on ideas of librarians and filing systems only to be constrained by the technology itself. As technological innovations allowed computers to have more storage and power information could now be quickly rearranged and cross-examined due to their non-physical nature(Halavais, 2007). Due to the information overload of the 90s and the introduction of the web as Halavais(2007) states it “grew to rival some of the largest libraries in the world”, it called for a new way to access this information, the search engine and Google were subsequently created.
How Google found its aim
Google was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page and is now a subsidiary of the alphabet corporation and in 2016 alphabet earned nearly all of its revenue from google’s advertising profits from search requests bringing the spirit of capitalism to newfound information technologies. In 2000 google started to allow advertisers to bid on the users search terms essentially creating a page ranking system(Mager, 2012) This allowed them to originally become the biggest player in the search engine market due to the fact that the sites pay them to be on the platform and to bid to be on the first page of results earning them the most revenue(Mager, 2012). Although this may sound like a clever and strategic business practice (and it is) there are many concerns surrounding this notion as Mager(2012) states, “The concentration and interconnection of large sets of heterogeneous user data within a single company triggers serious privacy concerns.”
Who’s really benefitting?
Although google as a company has profit margins in mind it cannot be argued they have produced great innovations into the world and brought us services such as gmail, android and google scholar. As a search engine google also excels in enabling all of us access to constantly updated information in which we use to broaden our views of the world and to stay informed. However, Due to its sheer size, profit margins and implementations of its advertising algorithms it is key that the only people benefitting from google is google.
User data is being used as a gold mine for google relating advertisements to the users desire based on search history and cookies (Mager, 2012) This creates an environment where the users and content creators only serve to create a surplus for google and with over 90% of the market share they have become complicit in this exploitation(Mager, 2012). Website providers are also analysing the algorithm and adjusting their websites specifically to cater to it in order to gain more clicks essentially letting the algorithm dictate the content we see and filtering it just to please google (Mager, 2012). As Mager (2012) states, “marketing practices contribute to a commercialization of organic search results because optimized… websites tend to get better presence.”
The algorithm at work
The societal implications of their algorithm as well only benefit google and actually attempt to dictate social discourse due to its bid-like nature of who appears on the first search results and their autocomplete search technology. For example in what is particularly concerning is the image based google searches and their complete misrepresentation of mainly women and minorities, reflecting age-old societal prejudices as Noble(2018) explains as a “direct mapping of old media traditions into new media architecture.” These discriminatory tendencies are completely evident in image searches as when “black woman” is entered into the search as google favours clicks that bring them capital you will find highly sexualised, mostly pornographic images. The algorithmic defamation in which was pioneered in a study on google systems by latnya sweeney and nick diakopoulos in 2013 where the algorithm being fed “a steady diet of historical user queries, learn to make incorrect defamatory or bigoted associations about people or groups of people(Osoba, Wesler, 2017).
This short video explains what exactly an algorithm is and how it can be exploited for personal gain
Another key piece of literature that also looks at the political implications of this algorithm is Kylie Jarrets “A database of Intention, 2014.”As Jarret (2014) explains, “what emerges from the algorithms preemptive assessment of the intentions of constructed segments of the population can become the future.” Google is through their algorithm running an agenda through sacrificing the ability to access unbiased information and the ability to let the people dictate what the future is seen as rather than an unwavering corporation.
The immensely dominated search engine market has led us to rely on basically just one search engine, google. Our reliance on this company has caused us to become complacent in its bias. Our inability to raise concerns over their agenda powered through clicks and dollars is ultimately due to the human trait of favouring convenience and whatever the quickest way is to an answer that we are interested in has failed us. Google continues to be the dominant force powering our societal discourse for the coming future and it seems that this is our new reality as we are now inadvertently linked to this corporation. Since it seems that Google is not going away anytime soon In future more work must be done to hold google accountable and to spread awareness of algorithmic biases for more transparent experiences with information technologies.
Havalais, A. (2007). Search Engine Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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
Mager, A. (2012). ALGORITHMIC IDEOLOGY. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 769-787. doi: 10.1080/1369118x.2012.676056
Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression. New York University.
Osoba, O. A., & Welser, W. (2017). The risks of artificial intelligence to security and the future of work. RAND.
Search engine market share worldwide | Statista. (2020). Retrieved 3 November 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/216573/worldwide-market-share-of-search-engines/#:~:text=Google%20has%20dominated%20the%20search,mobile%20devices%20and%20other%20ventures.
YouTube. (2020). Retrieved 3 November 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heQzqX35c9A&ab_channel=RSA