The Internet is truly a gift to humanity. It democratizes information and knowledge. But with our relatively newfound freedom to plumb the depths of collective intelligence (regardless of place or time) comes the responsibility to protect that liberty—to ensure that we really are getting full access. As I note in my previous blog, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not the case. Geography, context, personal data, consumer behavior, search advertising and less-than-transparent search algorithms all impact the results.
While search neutrality (that’s search results free of social, political or financial agendas) may not be a realistic expectation right now, we can put some checks and balances in place ourselves to get closer to this point.
Are search engines biased?
Search engines’ business models make it imperative that they meet the needs of users—irrelevant or low quality search results will cost them their credibility and their marketshare. But they must also meet the needs of advertisers if they wish to drive revenues. We thus need to be aware of how the agendas of big business—namely earnings, survival, and the innate competitiveness of commercial entities—influence the search results we receive. SE’s use of new technologies also impact results.
- Search advertising is very lucrative. Google’s ad revenues in 2018 ($119 billion) accounted for over 70% of its total revenues in that financial year. But to thrive, SE’s must satisfy both searchers and advertisers. It’s a delicate balance… but it’s not one we can rely on to keep search outputs weighted in favor of users’ rather than the SE or its advertisers’ commercial interests.
- The shortcomings of technology are linked to maturity. AI is in its infancy. It depends on and learns from society which, even in 2020, has many biases. And Google’s 200+ content rating factors that are constantly being refined to reflect changing market trends and dynamics—well, they may not always align with our own standards of what ‘good’ data looks like. They might, some articles suggest and others clearly state, be putty in advertisers’ hands.
- And then there’s issue of data ownership and privacy that has not been resolved. Each of us continues to (mostly) carelessly scatter a trail of data as we navigate the Web. This collection of data, with or without our permission, by Google and its advertisers makes us vulnerable to surveillance and marketers’ agendas, and can influence our opportunities to get a job, a loan, future insurance claims, you name it. Do SE’s care? Google’s mid 2019 privacy promises recognize emerging issues such as facial recognition and voice searches, but its efforts are slated as ‘marginal improvements’, ‘unimpressive’ and ‘privacy theatre’, by industry players. Other competitors in the SE field are starting to build upon this.
How can we keep SEs ‘honest’?
It requires all of us to be explorative, to follow our curiosity and to constantly question the myriad possibilities and opportunities that emerge from our use of technology.
The realities and potentials have to be thought about collectively, carefully and ethically.
Checks & balances … and an opportunity
How can we can work towards making search engines of the future more transparent, agile, collaborative rather than purely consumer driven?
- Get to grips with privacy. There is nothing more valuable right now than your data. Don’t just give it away. There are privacy settings on the browsers, apps and social media platforms you can use. A DuckDuckGo survey shows that 80% of Internet users are taking action to protect their privacy and how they are doing that—e.g., they have stopped adding location tags to posts and are making their profiles completely private. It’s worth taking an extra few minutes to set them up.
- Understand what search options exist, beyond the obvious, and use them to regularly compare the answers you are getting. Try alternate browsers and search engines.
- Demand UIs that provide greater transparency. How about a UI that also tells us where the content we are viewing originated—who created it, when, what the version history is, how many edits have been made, whether the content you are seeing has been blanket banned elsewhere, if it has “geo-limitations”? Can users demand that SEs provide better methods to counter “information hazards”? This will allow us to make smarter ‘click’ choices, and draw better conclusions. There are great opportunities to explore here.
- Be aware of how every click you make can scale and tip your outputs. How might these data skews or ‘anomalies’ be affecting your work outputs or your perceptions of customer needs and demands? How are your click choices limiting or shaping your results?
How does access to global data impact your life, your opinions, your job? What are the implications of SEs’ current behavior on the younger generation? What about their education? What about “free speech”? And the big question: How we can navigate around what may be a growing monopoly on data by big, digital business?
I’d love to hear your experiences, opinions and ideas. Continue reading part 3 of my series.