Search engine bias: What search results are telling you (and what they're not)

Search-engine bias affects our perception of what online information is available, is that a good thing or not? Are there risks?

Search _Results.jpg

A few years ago, a company decided to stop the brick and mortar portion of the business, relying completely on their professionally-revamped, search-engine optimized customer portal. Things were going famously, then new-customer sales began dropping dramatically. Looking for answers, the CEO called the CIO.

After rehashing the latest loss of the Minnesota Vikings football team, the CIO mentioned, "I suppose you're wondering why Google lowered the customer portal's PageRank." The CEO replied, "No, the drop in new sales concerns me."

"Well," the CIO continued, "A month ago when I checked search queries, our customer portal came up first. Today, when I looked, the portal was in twentieth spot which means second page, and worse yet, people see links to our competitor's website before ours." The CEO, with the tone of if you know what's good for you asked, "I assume this is being fixed?"

Welcome to search-engine bias

Biased search results affect more than companies that advertise on the Internet. From the example above, one can see that search-engine bias can alter an individual user's perception of what online information is available, and where that information can be found. Here is an excellent explanation of search-engine bias from Stanford University:

"[T]he phrase "search-engine bias" has been used to describe at least three distinct, albeit sometimes overlapping, concerns:

  1. Search-engine technology is not neutral, but instead has embedded features in its design that favor some values over others.
  2. Major search engines systematically favor some sites (and some kind of sites) over others in the lists of results they return in response to user search queries.
  3. Search algorithms do not use objective criteria in generating their lists of results for search queries.
"While some users may assume search engines are "neutral" or value-free, critics argue that search-engine technology, as well as computer technology in general, are value-laden and thus biased because of the kinds of features typically included in their design."

It seems devices made by humans can inherit human-like tendencies.

Nature of the beast

The fact that Google has almost 70 percent of the search market in the United States, and more world-wide, puts it smack in the sights of everyone as being the biggest offender when it comes to search-engine bias. To that point, companies and other search providers have successfully lobbied government agencies to look into Google's search practices (Bloomberg Press).

Not unexpected

The other day I ran across an ACM article, "What to Do About Google?" written by James Grimmelmann, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. In the article, James pointed out the angst exhibited by companies, individuals, and government agencies is completely expected; as is the fact nothing substantial has been pinned on Google, even with Google Search being investigated since 2011.

James believes that all interested parties have not really decided what search engines are good for, or what should be expected of them, adding::

"Some observers have compared Google to a traditional telecommunications conduit like a radio station. Some have compared it to an editor deciding what stories to put in a magazine. And some have compared it to an advisor, like the concierge in a hotel who answers questions about local attractions."

Let's dig a little deeper into each:

Conduit: If you subscribe to the conduit theory, then search engines would be similar to a telephone network. And since telephone networks are regulated to ensure no discrimination (net neutrality) when it comes to access, so should search engines. The problem with this approach: how does a search engine assign rank to web pages?  

Editor: Comparing search engines to an editor means each search engine decides what ranking to give web pages. Consider this parallel, the government should not be able to tell the New York Times which articles they can run, but their editors can. The same should apply to search engines.

Advisor: As an advisor, a search engine's role would be to rank websites in a manner conducive to the user, and not reflect the search engine's opinion. This gives search engines certain rights, and more importantly responsibilities. It eliminates search neutrality, but also means search engines cannot be influenced (payola) to improve rankings.

James concluded that each approach has a vital role:

All three theories capture something important about how search engines work. Each of them celebrates the contributions of one of the essential parties to a search. The conduit theory is all about websites with something to say, the advisor theory is all about the users who are interested in listening, and the editor theory is all about the search engine that connects them.

Next up, the burning question...

Reality or reflection?

Let's face facts; we are stuck with search engines. Here's a quote from James explaining why:

The Internet has made it easier to speak to worldwide audiences than ever before, but at the cost of massively increasing the cacophony confronting those audiences. Since users' interests are as diverse as human thought, they need highly personalized help in picking through the treasures in the Internet's vast but utterly disorganized storehouse. The search engine is the only technology known to humanity capable of solving this problem at Internet scale.

It would be difficult to function on the Internet without search engines, but it's a bit unnerving to realize that my son and I can type the exact same query into Google Search, and get close, yet recognizably different results. That tells me Google is acting as an editor, advisor, or maybe both. Is that creating reality or a reflection of what Internet? I'm not sure. What say you?

Final thoughts

This article may not be directly related to IT Security. But, ever since I penned "Why is my Internet different from your Internet?" in 2011, I have been on mini-crusade, alerting or even cautioning people about search results. They may vary from search engine to search engine, as well as from computer to computer depending on how much of your profile is established on the computer being used. I'm not saying whether search-engine bias is good or bad, it's just there, and we need to understand that.


Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

Editor's Picks