Search Engine Bias

The efficiency of 21st century search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing, can be quite accurate. However, like any company, search-engines are designed to maximize engagement and profit. In order to achieve this, there are hidden mechanisms in search engines that people need to know about.

What to be wary of:

  • “The promotion of sources being cited by other frequently cited sources — can’t always filter out bad, even fake information that is popular enough.”
  • “The rankings of search engines are the result of inscrutable and anonymous yet authoritative-seeming processes that can sometimes hide falsity and bias. Part of the reason is that search engines are designed to appeal to what they perceive or predict as your values.”
  • “Search results are elevated in search ranking not by geographic inference or personal search history but by techniques called search engine optimization, which can be legitimate and useful but also can give an advantage to sites skilled at gaming the algorithm.”
  • “The Dunning-Kruger effect, in turn, points to another challenge: to choose among a number of alternative sites yielded by a search, it’s often necessary to know a lot about the subject already. High school students, for instance, may be highly knowledgeable about some things but not necessarily about academic subjects. Wikipedia ranks high in search-results, and although Wikipedia editors are quick to catch misinformation, their public contribution model makes it difficult to do this in real time.”

Summary

  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 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.

Information gathered from

Source: Goldman, E. Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism. Berlin: Springer, 2008.

Tips for Tackling Search Engine Bias

#1. Always look past the first search result!

  • As discussed above, the first search result could be the most popular simply because of its already-established power in the industry.
  • Make sure you are looking beyond the first few search-results to see what minority interests are also saying on the matter.

#2. Switch up how you phrase your topic in the search engine

  • Different key-words will yield different results. Some key words you search for will appear in the anchor text of a third-party site, but not be related to the content given on the site. Switching up key words or phrases will give you a better range of the information out there.

#3. Beware of Confirmation Bias

  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.
  • When you are searching up websites pertaining to your topic, avoid only clicking on the sites that affirm your existing opinions on the matter. Perhaps the first few description lines under the website link will confirm what you believe, persuading you to click on that link. This method will not allow you to get a diverse range of views on the topic and can often lead to the propagation of fake news!
  • See “Confirmation Bias” section for more information.