Security

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

Grimmelmann_james.jpg
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.




About

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

20 comments
fhubapp
fhubapp

I think SEO'ers are the wrong orientation users by interfering in the google search results with their website seo tips. And I can confirm that the top results appearing on Google is unlikely to lead people to a better website!

downtoearthman
downtoearthman

I think you leave something very significant out. Google does not have a disclaimer on it's website that says that it makes money when you click on a page. All affiliate marketing websites have been read the riot act stating that if they don't post a disclaimer on their website claiming that they are making money on the products recommend when their users click on their links or they could receive a fine or be shut down. The majority of links on a google web page are affiliate links where they are receiving commissions every time someone clicks on a link yet they are not required to post the disclaimer. 

 Moreover, they have gradually blended the top three paid results so that it's hard to tell that it's any different from the organic results. Why is it that small time affiliate marketers have to come clean on the fact that they are making affiliate commissions, yet the biggest organization which is making much more money and actually has more control over the world market than any other organization has no accountability? To say that this is not a monopolistic tactic would be like saying the sun rises in the west. Furthermore, the government is supporting this conduct. It shows that the corporations have taken over the government. The revolutionary war has lost it's effect. We are no longer a free people for the people by the people and of the people. We are a country of serfs under the reign of our new kings the big corporations.

eaglewolf
eaglewolf

There is a book out by:  Eli Pariser titled:  "The Filter Bubble - What the Internet is Hiding From You."  Well worth reading on this topic.  We're into an era now where we dumb everything down - to include the software making decisions for us.  You see this in word processing programs now that 'offer' to complete both words and sentences for you based on your previous useage.  One search engine even admits to filtering your results based on your previous searches, but then includes results from social media.

So, the net result is, if you will, not only does your thought process suffer, but your world shrinks.  You learn nothing new - you're not 'allowed' to.

IMHO, it's a dangerous trend.  SEO is part of the problem as that translates to money - the all-governing 'end' result for the site.  But it's a not too subtle method of thought manipulation in certain critical areas - such as government - where *is* the truth?

As the ability, or the desire, to do real research on a topic wanes, we lose.  Our young people in schools, starting with elementary school, learn one thought - one process.   Where is the curiosity?  Where is the innovation?

What's the solution?  I don't know .. money and marketing seem to rule the game.

dbmarketing
dbmarketing

Hmm. I think this is an example of "All your eggs in one basket." I understand why getting rid of a physical presence is tempting (cutting significant costs), but if all your sales are dependent on the internet, then you are subjecting your distribution and cash flow to Google's whims. If Google decides to change their search algorithm, you have to change your page - this is well known, especially after the latest updates caused so much distress. The only way around it is to be so large that you are dependent on Google for page hits, which is what Amazon does. But that isn't for everyone. This is a risk that a business should consider before going online only for distribution.

Craig_B
Craig_B

Sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to do layered searches.  You would do Search1, then do Search2 on the results of Search1.  This could pop up some of those results that are a few pages deep in Search1.  Maybe someday.

flhtc
flhtc

Sure, it's been known for years, but how many people see the correlation between concealment and content.  Any security conscious person want's to keep their privacy, yet relevant content is important.  The question is how much to give up and how it's used once you give it up v.s. what you get in return.

 If what you get is directly related to what you give, then results should be different.  I'm sure this could be tested... at least for consistency.

Speaking of security, why is it that since the changes were made to TR, I now have to disable privacy and security measures to post.  This seems a bit askew.

adornoe
adornoe

Search engine bias?  

OMG!!!! 

When did that start happening???

(Someone is very late in noticing what most people have known for many years).




deepsand
deepsand

@downtoearthman 

"Google does not have a disclaimer on it's website that says that it makes money when you click on a page."

 That's because Google earns nothing whenever one clicks on an organic SERP listing.  Furthermore, no such disclosure is required for any listing, be it organic or PPC, as clicking on it costs the user nothing, and thus has no material effect on the user.

deepsand
deepsand

It is equally false to say that " ,,, they have gradually blended the top three paid results so that it's hard to tell that it's any different from the organic results."

Google, Bing,and Yahoo all clearly label the PPC listings that appear atop the organic listings  as "Ad related to ..."

deepsand
deepsand

@downtoearthman

Whatever led  you to conclude that "The majority of links on a google web page are affiliate links where they are receiving commissions every time someone clicks on a link ... ."?

As one who has been using the 'net for e-commerce 14 years, I can, without fear of being in error, say that such claim is false.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000 moderator

And the problem here is that when I search Electric Wheelchair on Ducky every search results in American Sites with no lists for any other country.

That in itself is a BIAS.
Col

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

@dbmarketing 

What you say is very true, but it is also not that well known, particularly with smaller businesses that are working hard to survive. Also, businesses that are in rural areas whose only outlet is to advertise on the Internet. 

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

@Craig_B 

Thanks Craig and Phillipe, I thought what you two referred to was a good idea. Thanks for mentioning it. 

PhilippeV
PhilippeV

@Craig_B This already exists since long. Use the "AND" keyword in your searches, or prefix each important keyword (or "quoted expressions") with a plus sign (+) to refine your searches.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

New information comes to light everyday. I learned a few things since my last piece on this two years ago.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Well, you may not believe it; this article was asked for. I also felt obligated to update what I reported in 2011.

eaglewolf
eaglewolf

@Michael

Thanks for the link.  Excellent piece and some excellent advice.  Glad you brought all that out.  I don't think things have gotten any better since then - just worse. 

Due to the heavy browser use that my job requires, I run CCleaner multiple times a day.  There is a 'set' series of things that I delete and it's a combination of junk value and security, but includes cookies, cache, history, temp files, and temporary internet files.  And on Firefox, I have Ghostery - often finding 15 or more trackers it's blocking.  Seems to work, but then, how do I know?

I truly don't think most users care anymore.  They want what the device or app gives them and that's the bottom line, driven by social pressure and marketing.  Privacy, security, and manipulation don't even register.

Craig_B
Craig_B

@PhilippeV  Thanks, that is helpful.  I think though this is just searching through Search1 using multiple keywords, though it still helps sort things out.