“Hey! What’s the population of the U.S.?”
“I don’t know… Google it!”
This year marks Google’s 20th birthday. Created in a friend’s garage by Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google quickly became the most-used website on Web 2.0 (“From the garage to the Googleplex”). At the moment Google is estimated to hold 95.15% of the Australian search market, and 92.3% of the world’s market (StatCounter, 2018). However, it was not the first search engine to emerge in the 90s.
History of Search Engines
Prior to Google, there used to be a wide abundance of search engines with Yahoo (1994) leading the movement. Also developed by Stanford University students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, Yahoo, along with a number of other engines such as WebCrawler and OpenText, commercialised their platforms gathering large audiences and generating revenue through advertising. Google, however, was one of the first companies to introduce traffic-based advertising. As opposed to controlling the content, they distributed it through the Web attracting diversity and boosting their revenues (Van Couvering, 2008, p. 202-203). To this day Google holds 77.8% of the world’s search ad market, so there is no secret why businesses constantly strive to rank well on Google search (Southern, 2017). However, what exactly makes it so appealing to the users?
Every time one performs a search via this engine they contribute to the construction of their own profile. However, search terms are not the only data collected by Google. This list goes from the location of one’s device to the time spent on certain websites.. Your presence online is constantly updated and moderated based on your actions online and even offline. Based on your constantly evolving profile, Google decides what information is of most relevance to you placing it at the top of your search results (Finkelstein, 2008). Search algorithms are what makes this platform so popular; however, with the ease of use also come major implications.
On the upside, Google certainly holds a number of benefits for the user. Initially created in hopes of providing “unbiased access to information” in an organised manner, Page and Brin developed an algorithm that sorted information based on its relevance, as opposed to the mere number of keywords. Such algorithm determined the popularity of a page based on the number of links to the website, as well as, its popularity amongst other users (Hazan, 2013, p. 790-793). As a result, the users were presented with information that was not only relevant to their search, but it was also more easily accessible in comparison to other platforms. Such qualities were distinct factors that attracted more users towards Google.
Although the perceived relevance of the content increased the engine’s popularity, with its ease of use and accessibility also came major implications.
Ranking highly on Google search instantly attracts traffic to the page. In fact, over 67% of all clicks on the search engine results page go to the first five websites with the first result page receiving about 95% of web traffic (Jacobson). Although initially shocking, such statistics emerge from a phenomenon called attention economy. With the immense amount of information, navigating the World Wide Web without any tools would be simply too time-consuming (Halavais, 2008). Hence, people rely on the first generated results trusting Google to provide the most relevant and reliable information.
However, is such information always of most relevance to your search? Unfortunately, Google algorithms are not entirely based on unbiased mathematical calculations. According to the article by Joshua Hazan (2013, p. 79), Google automatically prioritises its services over others in its search results. It was demonstrated that when searching “maps,” “email,” and “video,” the results brought up Google Maps, Gmail and Google Videos as top results. Quite recently, the president of the United States himself has also expressed his deep concern in regards to the questionable transparency of Google Search results. His query was mostly directed towards the apparent visibility of the media content created by the Liberal party resulting in the consequential suppression of the content by the Republican party. While many were sceptical about his claims, perhaps, his complaints were not so far-fetched. Prior to the elections in 2016, Professor Robert Epstein, of the American Institute of Behavioural Research and Technology, conducted a simple experiment comparing searches about the election on Google and Yahoo. Surprisingly, he found twice as many pro-Clinton articles on Google (O’Neill, 2018).
Such results could be due to either internal or external influences. While the algorithm could be organically favouring information that’s considered as politically correct by the programmers, there is also a possibility of Google manipulating search results for profit. The AdWords programme is the evidence to this theory. Back in 2016 the Observer journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, was shocked to discover that in response to her Google search, “Did the Holocaust happen?”, the first result was the article titled “Top 10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen”. After numerous attempts at getting Google to remove or de-prioritise such propaganda, Cadwalladr finally accomplished getting her self-made Wikipedia article to the top of the search results by paying Google $537.
One may ask, “Why would a Stormfront website appear before a Wikipedia page?” According to Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, it did not have many links pointing to it, which would make its ranking based on authority quite low (Cadwalldr, 2016). Perhaps, Google now favours popularity over authority for traffic. With so many people relying on the information presented to us by this search engine, it can easily manipulate the opinions of a mass for mere profit.
However, the users are not the only ones who are affected by the unreliable nature of Google algorithms. Once they favour certain pages based on popularity, they direct traffic towards those pages, which only increases their discoverability ultimately pushing the rest of the websites down the hierarchy. Such phenomenon has been described as the “rich get richer” effect (Diaz, 2008 p. 14). As a result, new businesses constantly struggle to break this vicious cycle. While some fall back on AdWords, such service is quite expensive for small and newly-established businesses. Such dilemma gave rise to a new visibility strategy – search engine optimisation.
So, what is Search Engine Optimisation? The SEO process revolves around utilising the right keywords and building links to increase the visibility of the website. The first step is the optimisation of one’s website. Apart from its feel and usability contributing to the overall user experience, utilising keywords within the website is absolutely crucial. Selecting the right keywords for each web page and consistently using them throughout the page significantly improves one’s chance of appearing in someone’s search results. Another effective strategy for being favoured by Google is building links to your web page by either associating with other companies (i.e. social media) or creating engaging content (i.e. blogs and videos) (Cushman, 2018).
This may sound easy; however, the more businesses become aware of those free tools, the harder to gets to make your way to the top. Such need for companies to gain exposure on Google search opened up an entire industry of Digital Marketing and SEO organisations. Agencies such as Online Marketing Gurus specialise specifically in optimising one’s searchability across search engines helping businesses in gaining more organic traffic (Online Marketing Gurus).
Google utilising the limits of human attention for their own profit has opened up a door for new industries in digital marketing. This not only allows room for more job opportunities, but also increases education options. Companies such as General Assembly have created extensive courses on digital marketing (“Dive Into Digital Marketing”, 2018), which is starting to be implemented by major universities such as the University of Sydney (“Digital Marketing”, 2018).
But what about us, consumers?
Unfortunately, the users of platforms such as Google have to accept that their data is constantly being extracted, analysed and commodified. In 2009 Meglena Kuneva, who is the European Consumer Commissioner stated, “personal information is the new oil of the internet and the currency of the digital world” (Powers & Jablonski, 2015, p. 75). The constantly-appearing advertisements that eerily know exactly what you want will not stop. The same goes for biased Google search rankings. We live in a profit-motivated society, and at times such priority takes precedence over ethics. This can be clearly seen in Cadwalladr’s case. Google search is not perfect. It evidently has its affordances and implications, and in order for us to make informed decisions based off of its information, we must be aware of its flaws.
Cadwalladr, Carole. (2016, December 18). How to bump Holocaust deniers off Google’s top spot? Pay Google. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/17/holocaust-deniers-google-search-top-spot
Cushman, Mary. (2018). Search engine optimization: What is it and why should we care? Research and Practice in Thrombosis and Haemostasis, 2, 180-181. DOI: 10.1002/rth2.12098
Diaz, Alejandro. (2008). Through the Google Goggles: Sociopolitical Bias in Search Engine Design. In Spink A., Zimmer M. (Eds.), Web Search. Information Science and Knowledge Management, vol 14. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.
Finkelstein, Seth. (2008). Google, Links and Popularity vs Authority. The Hyperlinked Society. Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui (eds), University of Michigan Press. pp. 104-120.
General Assembly. (2018). Dive into Digital Marketing. https://ga.co/2IVJCgc
Google. From the Garage to the Googleplex. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/about/our-story/
Halavais, Alexander. (2013). The engines. Search engine society (pp. 5-31). Cambridge, UK: Malden, MA: Polity.
Hazan, J. (2013). Stop Being Evil: A Proposal for Unbiased Google Search. Michigan Law Review, 111(5), 789-820. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/stable/23812653
Jacobson, Madeline. How Far Down the Search Engine Results Page Will Most People Go? Retrieved from
Online Marketing Gurus. Retrieved from
O’Neill, Brendan. (2018, August 30). President Trump’s right – Google search is biased to the liberal Left. Retrieved from
Powers, S. M. & Jablonski, M. (2015). Google, Information, and Power. In The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom (pp. 74-98). University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/stable/10.5406/j.ctt130jtjf.8
Southern, M. (2017, March 14). Google’s Share of Search Ad Market Projected to Grow to 80% by 2019. Retrieved from
StatCounter. (2018, September). Search Engine Market Share Australia.
StatCounter. (2018, September). Search Engine Market Share Worldwide.
The University of Sydney. (2018). Digital Marketing. Retrieved from https://cce.sydney.edu.au/courses/marketing/digital
Van Couvering, E. (2008). The History of the Internet Search Engine: Navigational Media and the Traffic Commodity. In Spink A., Zimmer M. (eds) Web Search. Information Science and Knowledge Management, vol 14. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.