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A Brief History of Search Engine Bias and Manipulation

Article Link:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-search/#SearEngiBiasProbOpac

As explored in this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  search engines and ethics are closely tied. Critics of online search engines have always pointed out the paradigm of bias – exclaiming that web search algorithms often systematically exclude certain types of web pages, in favor of different ones, giving height to some at the expense of others. This is done because of two main reasons:

  1. Advertisers’ interests
  2. Tech-savvy organizations that manipulate ordered rankings 

Starting with unethical advertising interests, let’s first examine Google’s founders original thoughts on paid advertisement. Founders Brin and Page noted in 1998 that it is reasonable “to expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers…  [and ] less blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market.” (1998, 18). As the Web era developed, a number of unethical practices began taking place. For example, one practice of “paid listings” – ads that looked very similar to normal results – were shoved down users throats unknowingly. Search engines like GoTo listed off results based solely on “paid hits” from advertising agencies. And while GoTo suffered from user dissatisfaction eventually failed, the company was taken over by google and GoTo’s unethical ad practices were adopted. The one useful change Google made, however, was inserting a physical separation between “organic” results and the ads. 

Next, when looking at tech-savvy individuals and companies that adopted strategies to “cheat the engine,” let’s refer to these instances of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as “insiders.”  These insiders often used HTML meta keywords and tags to manipulate developing search engine to achieve higher rankings in the order schemes. Fortunately, many search engines slowly recognized the HTML loopholes in their algorithms and began to take into account and disregard these insiders. 

That being said, organizations continued to change and adopt new strategies to manipulate their search rankings. Google’s developing algorithm, as we discussed in class, gives web pages better rankings if they optimized their relationship with the system of hubs and authorities. Therefore, web site owners who could manipulate how many links they had to other pages and how many they were linked to would exploit the ranking system. Unsurprisingly, today the most successful websites are giant, very well known-tech companies like Amazon, leaving millions of typical pages on the low rankings.

This brief history of search-engine bias, ads, and ethics is very relevant to our in-class discussion of  both hubs and authorities as well as the page-rank system that Google relied on until 2016. It was very telling that the founders of google new from the start that biases would be tolerated in their search engines – as they certainly were and continue to be in variations of PageRank.

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