Search and Algorithmic Surfacing
In Google We Trust
We trust Google. Or, at least, it seems that way.
In Search Engine Society (pp. 85-117).
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. [Library Catalog Entry | Posted to “Course Materials” on Blackboard], Lavais says, “In examining how adolescents search the web, one research study (Guinee, Eagleton, & Hall 2003) noted their reactions to failed searches. Searchers might try new keywords, or switch search engines, for example. One common reaction was to change the topic, to reframe the question in terms of what was more easily findable via the search engine. The models of search suggest that searchers satisfice: look for sufficiently good answers rather than exhaustively seek the best answer. Because of this, the filters of the search engine may do more than emphasize certain sources over others; they may affect what it is we are looking for in the first place. It is tempting simply to consider this to be poor research skills – or worse, a form of technical illiteracy – but simple answers do not fit this complex problem.” (Page 87)
Whether we search for a local pizza parlor or the best place to go on vacation or for a gynecologist, search engine rankings and how webmasters address Google’s complicated algorithm all shape what we see. Inevitably, we end up trusting these results. Yet are they the best possible results? I would argue that they often are not.
Bestsellers and White Hats That Might Be a Little Grey
Consider the case of New York Times bestselling authors. Google the term new york times bestselling author, and you’ll get the actual list and two Wikipedia entries and then you’ll get the website of Carly Phillips. Just below that is a Forbes article about how to buy your way onto the list.
Wait … Carly who?
I went through the first ten pages of results (further along than most seekers would) and didn’t see JK Rowling, George RR Martin, or Stephen King. I do not believe it is search fraud or any other form of black hat SEO. As was written by Battelle, J. (2005). The search economy. In The search: How Google and its rivals rewrote the rules of business and transformed our culture (pp. 153-188). New York: Portfolio. [Posted to “Course Materials” on Blackboard], “Among the first-tier companies – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft – search fraud is already taken extremely seriously, and efforts to combat it are intensifying. ‘We’ll never rum a blind eye to this,’ says Patrick Giordani, who runs loss prevention at Yahoo’s Overture subsidiary. ‘Our goal is to stop it all.’” (Page 188). Like I wrote, I don’t think that’s what is happening here.
Getting There is Half the Battle?
If Phillips can get to the top of search rankings, then more power to her, assuming that she gets there using white hat techniques only. But just because she hits the top of the search results says nothing about the quality of her prose or even the number of times she’s hit the New York Times bestseller list.
The New York Times bestseller list was, for years, considered to be an objective measurement of popularity. But not necessarily quality. However, when EL James (author of Fifty Shades of Grey) doesn’t make it to the top ten pages of search results, that means something. When Phillips gets there via search engine magic, it says more about the quality of her SEO than of her fiction writing. For seekers who accept the first few results without question (albeit possibly after rewording their searches a few times), the algorithm pushes content to them that isn’t necessarily truly serving their interests. And, much like we saw with recommender systems, that might even be driving users’ reviews and maybe even their personal preferences.