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What’s Your Search Engine Personality?

In her article “Do web search engines suppress controversy?,” Susan L. Gerhart provides some experimental evidence that they can. For example, a query on “distance education” may generate few to no critiques of “diploma mills” that have proven to be a real problem in the field. As Gerhart explains,

The distance learning “search engine personality” is to “help you find the distance learning program right for you,” rather than “provide pro and con arguments for going the distance learning route.” An information seeker might well assume distance learning is a fully accepted and well-paved alternative for cheaper education, when issues of quality, accreditation, and durability of degrees are still unresolved.

I think this study is a cautionary tale for those optimistic that “personalized search engines” can solve the issue of “search engine bias.” A personalized search engine may manage to notice that, say, a skeptical searcher continually chooses the most negative links about certain topics, and gradually may “learn” to put those at the top for that searcher. But the very same program may well tend to do the reverse for the gullible–precisely the group most in need of a “reality check” by being exposed to controversial aspects of a subject.

On a more philosophical level, it’s interesting to note the “tracking” effect that months or years of searches may have. The wonder and promise of the search engine is to liberate individuals from the tyranny of limited information sources. But an overly personalized search might get people into “digital ruts” they have little idea they are creating.

In a footnote on Gerhart’s paper, Goldman states that her assumption that “controversy-related information has value to consumers . . . deserves careful evaluation.” Perhaps that is the case–but is the burden of proof really on Gerhart? I tend to resist an implicit characterization of the search engine as a purely economic entity. Though they may sometimes be used as such, search engines are not merely phone books or indexes or marketing tools. Like the mass media they are currently complementing (and supplanting), search engines have a distinctive cultural impact. They increasingly shape (what we know of) the web. Their presentation of material can decisively influence our understanding of a topic.

Hat tip: Battelle Search Paper Archives.