Search engines and democracy

February 24, 2011 - Digital State Marketing

Search engines are now a huge part of everyone in the western world’s life, and are still growing and becoming truly global brands. But how do search engines affect society and democracy? And do they act responsibly with their actions and procedures. There is no doubt that search engines influence politics and society, especially through a web-site’s page ranking.

People have a huge trust in Google, and many eye-catching experiments have shown that if results were artificially changed and people kept clicking on the first result. This is a big responsibility for Google, who knows that it’s page ranking has many effects on the information people recieve.

These are the three main issues that search engines have to deal with in this respect:

1. Relevancy in search results. Search engines’ information retrieval algorithms sort the results by an estimate of the probability that it will fulfill the user’s information need, thereby potentially reducing the cognitive effort and time costs for searchers. Theoretically, search engines could alter results to fulfill their own interests (or a Government’s interest etc). But this would get people frustrated when they don’t find what they are really looking for, so search engines would get penalized if they did so. This would also have an adverse affect on their reputation and could lead to a collapse in the use of that particular search engine.

2. Diversity in search results. This has to do with having different sources of data and different sites where you can get results from, in order to avoid discrimination and inaccurate results. Search engines are also encouraged to have as much diversity as is possible, but this has more to do with ethics than with professionalism. There are, however, some exceptions, for example Google China, which is censored by the Government in order to eliminate certain results. Google thought it was better this way than no giving any results at all to people living in China.

3. Transparency in the way search engines work. This has to do with algorithms, which are obscure formulations and calculate the results shown on the screen for the user. The specific algorithms are not published, for obvious reasons, but there is a degree of transparency where Google bloggers write about the technicalities and methods used. This is vital in making sure the search engine’s do not take advantage of their huge dominance in the global market by manipulating search results.