Academic journal article Yale Journal of Law & Technology

Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism

Academic journal article Yale Journal of Law & Technology

Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Due to search engines' automated operations, people often assume that search engines display search results neutrally and without bias. However, this perception is mistaken. Like any other media company, search engines affirmatively control their users' experiences, which has the consequence of skewing search results (a phenomenon called "search engine bias"). Some commentators believe that search engine bias is a defect requiring legislative correction. Instead, this Essay argues that search engine bias is the beneficial consequence of search engines optimizing content for their users. The Essay further argues that the most problematic aspect of search engine bias, the "winner-take-all" effect caused by top placement in search results, will be mooted by emerging personalized search technology.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. SEARCH ENGINES MAKE EDITORIAL CHOICES
  A. INDEXING
  B. RANKING
II. SEARCH ENGINE EDITORIAL CHOICES CREATE BIASES
III. SEARCH ENGINE BIAS IS NECESSARY AND DESIRABLE
IV. TECHNOLOGICAL EVOLUTION WILL MOOT SEARCH ENGINE BIAS

V. CONCLUSION

In the past few years, search engines have emerged as a major force in our information economy, helping searchers perform hundreds of millions (or even billions) of searches per day. (1) With this broad reach, search engines have significant power to shape searcher behavior and perceptions. In turn, the choices that search engines make about how to collect and present data can have significant social implications.

Typically, search engines automate their core operations, including the processes that search engines use to aggregate their databases and then sort/rank the data for presentation to searchers. This automation gives search engines a veneer of objectivity and credibility. (2) Machines, not humans, appear to make the crucial judgments, creating the impression that search engines bypass the structural biases and skewed data presentations inherent in any human-edited media. (3)

Unfortunately, this romanticized view of search engines does not match reality. Search engines are media companies. Like other media companies, search engines make editorial choices designed to satisfy their audience. (4) These choices systematically favor certain types of content over others, producing a phenomenon called "search engine bias."

Search engine bias sounds scary, but this Essay explains why such bias is both necessary and desirable. The Essay also explains how emerging personalization technology will soon ameliorate many concerns about search engine bias.

I. SEARCH ENGINES MAKE EDITORIAL CHOICES

Search engines frequently claim that their core operations are completely automated and free from human intervention, (5) but this characterization is false. Instead, humans make numerous editorial judgments about what data to collect and how to present that data.

A. INDEXING

Search engines do not index every scrap of data available on the Internet. Search engines omit (deliberately or accidentally) some web pages entirely (6) or may incorporate only part of a web page. (7)

During indexing, search engines are designed to associate third party "metadata" (data about data) with the indexed web page. For example, search engines may use and display third party descriptions of the website in the search results. (8) Search engines may also index "anchor text" (the text that third parties use in hyperlinking to a website), (9) which can cause a website to appear in search results for a term the website never used (and may object to). (10)

Finally, once indexed, search engines may choose to exclude web pages from their indexes for a variety of reasons, ranging from violations of quasi-objective search engine technical requirements (11) to simple capriciousness. (12)

B. RANKING

To determine the order of search results, search engines use complex proprietary "ranking algorithms. …

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