Served Up Some Internet Search Results? Ask Again.
Remember those beautiful webpages (insert sarcasm here)? If you don't remember, then travel back in time by going to the Wayback Machine. I was first introduced to the internet via the Mosaic web browser. Er, yah, I know.. Mos-what? Looking back, there was this inevitable trust that I had - browsing around, jumping in and out of sites.
And that's the thing that I love about the internet - knowing that pretty much anything is always available. Is it solid and accurate information though? That's questionable. However, knowing that there is some sort of answer out there is somewhat satisfying. False satisfaction perhaps. Regardless, there are hundreds of thousands of search results pages but where to begin? No problem - I only go to the first page of the search results. ☺
This experience of being able to look for anything and trusting that the computer-engine-server-thing would come back with results was pretty neat. I believed the first search result was a great match to my search query. Also, if my friend typed in the same word, then she too would get the same set of results. You would think that's logical, but not anymore.
I sometimes look back to when I was working at Razorfish, an interactive agency, where I worked on a project where my team was partnering with Endeca (a software company who has since been acquired by Oracle). At the time, Endeca was introducing their enterprise-grade search technology. It was in their presentation where I remember them saying that search results that appear to be a ‘natural’ set of results are in reality paid placements. Really? The results that appear on the typical results listings were actually advertisements. Companies were influencing search results by paying to have their websites to be listed on the first page (all before sponsored results were coined). This of course is hearsay and brings me to the next experience: learning how much of the internet is filtered.
Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s pretty convincing. I believe it is being filtered by who pays the most and do we really know the algorithm that goes into sorting out the data. Eli Pariser, founder of Moveon.org, exposes some of this in his 2011 TED talk presentation.
Watch: Beware Online "Filter Bubbles"
After watching this, I couldn't help but experiment with my colleagues. This is what happened. There were four of us in the office where we paired off and faced each other. We sat at our computers and opened up Google. Then, each of us typed in the word “president” in the search field. Pretty innocuous, right? What we saw was that the search results were slightly different for each person. Jane, who we all knew was a Democrat, received search results with President Obama at the top. Amy, who we all knew was a Republican, received search results with Republican-oriented news at the top and President Obama was actually placed more towards the middle or near the bottom of the results page. We couldn’t believe it.
I was very surprised by this experiment. Was it an eye opener? It surely makes me look beyond what I used to believe at face value. Now I always feel the need to probe deeper into any list of search results. I have to ask myself the same questions that were taught in school: who, what, where, when, how and why are those particular search results appearing on the first page? It's all there with a reason.