Do Search Engines Always Have The Answer?




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We surf the internet; we explore the multiplying thousands of options of where to go when we type a simple search term into a search engine. Never before have we had access to such immense amounts of information. However, in this vast landscape of data we might actually be digging and descending into a very narrow trench every time we look for something.

This trench is a narrow filter shaped by advertising, results that have paid to be on the top ranks, with SEO manipulation and sheer financial clout allowing some sites to climb the endless list of links generated by the search engine right to the top. Most of all it is carved out according to the data that a search engine can collect about us, the searcher, such as our location, computer type, search history, social connections, occupation and habits. Anything in our digital record of activity can influence the results a search engine throws back to us.

Narrowing a search is often what we feel we want to achieve. We want to get the most relevant results to us when we google them and often that´s what we do get. By shaping the ways in which Google and other platforms such as Facebook provide results, the user experience can apparently be improved and the companies can maintain their lead in the industry. This is one way of their ensuring that we keep on using them.

If two people search for the exact same thing with the same words or phrase, they will often get different results. The more we look at the information based on these results by clicking the options we get offered, the more tailored the next results become. As a consequence we begin to receive more and more personalised responses as well as targeted advertisements, and this is only likely to increase as the technology becomes more sophisticated, and more data about ourselves becomes available online.

According to Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, this personalisation of information managed algorithmically has a malign consequence; we end up confined in bubbles of filtered and tailored data sets which distance us from any information which disagrees with our viewpoint and restrains our further knowledge and curiosity since we don’t get exposed to any direct evidence of this gap. This can supress dialogue and communication between different entities and therefore have a negative impact on the democratization of the internet.

Internet enthusiasts claim that the web is a platform for a rich diversity of voices. Certainly the internet has opened up a range of opportunities for political, social, cultural and economic transformation through different channels of information dissemination. It has empowered different groups and has provided a space for collective action initiated through online communication. However, there is an increasing monopolisation of information led by the biggest companies.

As a researcher, I love having the option of going to a library and knowing exactly where I am going to find the information that I need straight away. With the vast amount of electronic information I have access to as a library and internet user, I can go to the exact corridor, get an exact book, page and paragraph for the information I am looking for.

However, I can’t resist the opportunity of stopping in other corridors, exploring different ideas and titles which are not often related to my research interests and randomly turning the pages of other books to satisfy my curiosity. In a library we can do that. Online, this may become increasingly difficult.

References

Pariser, E. (2012) The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You London: Penguin Books.

Image via rzoze19 / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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