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Search Engine Editorial Choices Create Biases

Search results ordering has a significant effect on searchers and web publishers. Searchers usually consider only the top few search results; the top-ranked search result gets a high percentage of searcher clicks, and click-through rates quickly decline from there. [21] Therefore, though a search engine may deliver hundreds or even thousands of search results in response to a searcher’s query, searchers effectively ignore the vast majority of those search results. Accordingly, web publishers desperately want to be listed among the top few search results. [22]

For search engines, results placement determines how the searcher perceives the search experience. If the top few search results don’t satisfy the searcher’s objectives, the searcher may deem the search a failure. Therefore, to maximize searcher perceptions of search success, search engines generally tune their ranking algorithms to support majority interests. [23] In turn, minority interests (and the web sites catering to them) often receive marginal exposure in search results.

To gauge majority interests, search engines frequently include a popularity metric in their ranking algorithm. Google’s popularity metric, PageRank, treats inbound links to a web site as popularity votes, but votes are not counted equally; links from more-popular web sites count more than links from lesser-known web sites. [24]

Beyond promoting search results designed to satisfy majority interests, PageRank’s non-egalitarian voting structure causes search results to be biased toward web sites with economic power [25] because these web sites get lots of links due to their marketing expenditures and general prominence.

Indeed, popularity-based ranking algorithms may reinforce and perpetuate existing power structures. [26] Web sites that are part of the current power elite get better search result placement, which leads to greater consideration of their messages and views. Furthermore, the increased exposure attributable to better placement means that these web sites are likely to get more votes in the future, leading to a self-reinforcing process. [27] In contrast, minority-interest and disenfranchised web sites may have a difficult time cracking through the popularity contest, potentially leaving them perpetually relegated to the search results hinterlands. [28]

A number of commentators have lamented these effects and offered some proposals in response:

  • Improve search engine transparency. Search engines keep their ranking algorithms secret. [29] This secrecy hinders search engine spammers from gaining more prominence than search engines want them to have, but the secrecy also prevents searchers and commentators from accurately assessing any bias. To enlighten searchers, search engines could be required to disclose more about their practices and their algorithms. [30] This additional information has two putative benefits. First, it may improve market mechanisms by helping searchers to make informed choices among search engine competitors. Second, it may help searchers to determine the appropriate level of cognitive authority to assign to their search results.
  • Publicly fund search engines. Arguably, some effects of search engines (such as reduced search costs for individual searchers) benefit society as a whole, suggesting that maybe the government, rather than private entities, should provide these services. [31] Indeed, there have been several proposals to create government-funded search engines. [32]
  • Mandate changes to ranking/sorting practices. Search engines could be forced to increase the exposure of otherwise marginalized web sites. At least five lawsuits [33] have requested judges to force search engines to reorder search results to increase the plaintiff’s visibility. [34]

In addition to plaintiffs, some academics have supported mandatory reordering of search results. For example, Pandey et al. advocate a "randomized rank promotion" scheme in which obscure web sites should get "extra credit" randomly in ranking algorithms, appearing higher in the search results on occasion and accordingly getting additional exposure to searchers. [35] As another example, Pasquale proposes that, when people think the search engines are providing false or misleading information, search engines should be forced to include a link to corrective information. [36]

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