Have you ever given thought to how you go about gathering information? Consider for a moment just how much you rely on modern web search engines.
As a society, we defer near-total responsibility to companies like Google to deliver us with the best results for information that we’re seeking – but what’s to stop them presenting us with information based on their own motivations?
In order to frame this issue, I’ll begin by exploring modern web search engines’ rise in prominence; including key players and their share of the market, before broaching the topics of biased search algorithms through political, economic, and social lenses.
While I’ll endeavour to speak on search engines as a whole where possible, this essay will focus on the key player in the search engine market, and investigate the transformative repercussions in relation to them.
Though the search engine story has roots as far back as the mid-20th century, we’ll focus on when things really got interesting – the rise of web search engines.
28 years ago, in September 1990, the very first (pre) web search engine was launched. Named Archie, this early example of a search engine enabled users to search File Transfer Protocol (FTP) files. Some two years later, Veronica and Jughead joined the party, offering the earliest examples of text-based search engines.
In September 1993, W3Catalog was launched. Widely recognised as the very first web search engine to come into existence, W3Catalog marked a turning point in search engine innovation. The primary issue that plagued W3Catalog was poor optimisation, which crippled its ability to scale as a platform – this was due in large part to the lack of crawler/indexer use. JumpStation remedied this issue in December 1993, and for the first time in history, web search engines resembled the general structure of those in use today.
Several contenders entered the web search engine market over the coming years, each boasting innovations aimed at improving their ability to return meaningful search results. In December 1995, Altavista built the first search engine capable of natural language queries, a concept which was central to the Ask Jeeves search engine released in April 1997 (Liu & Curran, 2006).
Rewind a year; in early 1996, a couple of students at Stanford University got the ball rolling on an algorithm capable of ranking web pages in a manner that had never been considered before. The concept was unprecedented, and the algorithm conceived formed the cornerstone of BackRub – a web search engine that utilitised back-linking to weight page credibility, and hence produce the most accurate search result listings available at the time. The algorithm was named PageRank, and riding upon its success, Backrub would later come to be known as Google.
Following the launch of Google in 1998, the search engine commenced its explosive rise to power, indexing approximately 60 million pages by the end of the first year of its operation (Rosenberg, 1998). The 2000’s came and went, seeing Google experience exponential growth; reaping the benefits of a growing dot-com-bubble as a spring-board into widespread vertical expansion of their product offerings.
Today, Google dominates search engine market, with a worldwide market share exceeding 90% (Desjardins, 2018).
Now that we’ve got an idea of how the modern search engines came to be, we can explore the ways in which this innovation has had a transformative effect in economic, social, and political spaces, with a range of beneficiaries.
In the following sub-sections, I will endeavour to shed some light on these transformative effects.
From an economic standpoint, the stakeholders who have benefited the most are those who have integrated advertising platforms into their search engine offerings (Mager, 2011).
Google; a central player in the advertising space, enables advertisers to target individuals accurately, leveraging proprietary data collected through their search engine (and by other methods). The ability to offer highly targeted advertising to a vast selection of demographics has resulted in massive returns for Google. The Google Ad Auction, as Hal R. Varian aptly refers to it (Varian, 2006), has resulted in Alphabet reporting revenue figures of US$27.227 billion in Q4 2017.
The establishment of a marketplace for advertisers to bid on impressions, clicks, and conversions has resulted in the creation of a digital advertising economies centred around platforms with high volumes of users. Successful advertising, combined with sound Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) can mean a a website ranks on the first or second page of Google’s search results – criteria that’s all but essential for businesses seeking to be organically discovered by Google’s search engine.
With the vast majority of users dropping off by the third page of Google search results, it is clear how SEO has become the cutthroat industry that it is today (Introna & Nissenbaum, 2000).
There is competition for those top ten seats. There is serious competition. People are trying to take away the top spots every day. They are always trying to fine-tune and tweak their HTML code and learn the next little trick. The best players even know dirty ways to “bump off ” their competition while protecting their own sites (Anderson & Henderson, 1997).
While it’s clear that companies like Google are beneficiaries of this newfound economy (that they’ve largely created for themselves), it must also be noted that a great many employment opportunities have been formed as a result.
On the flip-side; businesses and individuals lacking the means to compete for top rankings stand disadvantaged by the trend for users to seek information using search engines. In a pre-web search engine society, these businesses would have stood a significantly better chance of landing impressions, and potential business.
Social / Political
The social and political ramifications of search engine innovation and prevalence are deeply intertwined. But before delving any further into this, it is important for us to understand how the underlying algorithm for the world’s most popular search engine works in a little greater detail. Former Google employee and innovator, Matt Cutts touches upon how Google’s PageRank algorithm works;
While under the hood of Google’s search engine, we find their PageRank algorithm – similar algorithms can be found in a wide range of related technologies and innovations. As a result, these technologies experience many of the same pitfalls as Google’s search engine.
We’ve established that in order to rank highly on Google’s search engine, one must jump through a long series of hurdles just to have a fighting chance of besting the competition. In an effort to highlight the socio-political beneficiaries of the algorithm, let us select two of the most prominent hurdles (factors) affecting these stakeholders;
- The ability to leverage existing social capital.
- The ability to leverage existing financial means.
Given what we know of the way in which the PageRank algorithm works (for example), it is trivially conceivable that a popular personality (such as a celebrity) could in theory, create a website, have it listed on Google, and have it rank highly (perhaps in the top 10 pages for a given term) with minimal effort – owing solely to the fact that they have high in social capital. Similarly, the readiness for a wealthy individual to throw large volumes of money at advertising could also result in similar outcomes (Introna & Nissenbaum, 2000).
The repercussions of these factors is that only a subset of individuals possess the social capital, and financial means to position themselves in the highest ranking positions of search engines. The likelihood of individuals who do not have access to these resources reaching prominent rankings is significantly less likely.
I’d place myself on the periphery of those who have benefited from search engine technological innovation. While my studies in the field of Computer Science have revealed many of the underlying mechanisms which Google’s PageRank algorithm is comprised of, it by no means equips me with the resources required to beat the SEO “game”. As alluded to earlier, the fact that it is impossible to master the ever-evolving PageRank algorithm has paved the way for an entirely new division of job roles in the field of Search Engine Optimisation.
For the purpose of providing background on some of the aforementioned mechanisms, Code.org created this video which does a great job of illustrating some of the underlying factors leveraged by search engine algorithms (such as Google’s PageRank) to improve the quality of their search results, and provide the fundamental SEO building blocks.
Economically, I feel that I have benefited from the rise in SEO employment opportunities, having undertaken a couple of years work in this field over the past few years. On the social and political fronts, the benefits (or lack thereof) are less clear.
In The End
It’s safe to say that search engines are here to stay. Monetising search engine platforms, and evolving the underlying search engine algorithms are two practices that are unlikely to cease in the foreseeable future – these companies are here to make money, after all (Varian, 2006 & Mager, 2011).
However, all is not lost. We’ve witnessed less than 3 decades of innovation in this domain, and while it is possible for companies, such as Google, to present us with information in whichever manner they choose; I strongly believe that society learns and adapts.
At the beginning of this essay, I impressed upon you the notion that society’s reliance on search engines could mean the information we’re receiving is biased by the institution that delivers it to us. While the message may appear cynical at first, the intention here is to provoke thought surrounding the issue of society’s reliance on this technology.
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Joachims, Thorsten, and Radlinski, Filip. 2007. Search Engines that Learn from Implicit Feedback. Accessed from: IEEE Xplore Digital Library.
Gasser, Urs. 2006. Regulating Search Engines: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead. Accessed from: Yale.edu.
Anderson, Patrick, and Henderson, Michael. 1997. Hits to Sales.
Pasquale, Frank A. 2006. Rankings, Reductionism, and Responsibility. Accessed from: SSRN.
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