Objective Search: What exactly is a Search Engine?
In late August of 2018, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, continues his battle against pretty much almost everyone by accusing Google of being biased against him with a series of early morning Twitter posts from his official account. If that wasn’t enough, President Trump also posted thinly-veiled threats against the search engine giant as the abrasive figure is wont to do. The more level-headed minds of the population know better than to take these allegations seriously but given how much influence Google has over our lives, it might be prudent to help clear things up.
On average, Google processes more than 40,000 search queries every second, which equates to over 3.5 billion searches per day. Google isn’t the only search engine in the world but it is by far the dominant one with a market share of over 90%, which is basically a monopoly. Trump’s accusation might sound a little bit far-fetched but Google’s notorious lack of transparency regarding their search algorithms, which has consistently been a thorn on SEO services and marketers, doesn’t exactly help matters.
The tech boom, political division and a stunning lack of oversight
To some circle, the fact that the past couple years have acted as a time of reckoning for some of the world’s biggest tech companies has been a long time coming. For the last decade, the meteoric rise of social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has been gone unchecked and while they’ve been mostly a welcome presence in our lives, their outsized influence have now opened up a can of worms that none of us have been able to contain, including the ones behind the platform itself.
In India, at least two dozen mob murders have been directly attributed to misinformation and false rumors spread to the popular instant messaging app WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. In Germany, recent anti-refugee sentiments and attacks have also been perpetuated by hate speech on Facebook. Google-owned YouTube too have to contend with rampant conspiracy theorists that tend to pass off baseless speculation as facts.
As uncomfortable as it might sound, these platforms and by extension, the tech companies behind these platforms, have a massive influence on what we’ll see, read and/or hear on the internet. And Google, as the operator behind the most dominant search engine in the world has direct control over the majority of web traffic at any given moment. Even a simple tweak to their search algorithm would be enough to shift terabytes of data from one website to the next.
Peeking under Google’s hood
As such, it is important to clear some things up about how exactly search engines work and why President Trump’s accusation is very unlikely to be true. Keep in mind however that the exact details on how Google searches work is a closely guarded secret, as akin KFC’s 11 herbs and spices, Google’s search algorithm is the foundation behind Google’s success. That being said, there are some information about the search engine itself that has been revealed to the public.
Whenever you typed in a query into Google, say ‘what are superfoods’, Google sift through its index of billions and billions of webpages collected via the use of crawlers (programs that essentially scans the internet) that uses that exact or closely-related phrase. Google then collects those pages and sort them out using an algorithm fully known only to themselves. This algorithm is what determines which page provides the best answer to your query and one that Trump alleges to be biased.
How Google determines search rankings
In the example query above, Google returns a total of 146 million pages that its algorithm think answer my question. Obviously, it’s highly unlikely that I’d be able to sift through all of those pages looking for the perfect answer and so Google puts the most relevant pages on the first page of the search results and the rest tucked in behind with decreasing relevance as we go further back. This is what those in the business refer to as search rankings.
Back when Google was first started, the primary formula that was used to determine these rankings is PageRank, named after Google co-founder Larry Page. PageRank sorts webpages based on how many sites link to a particular page. The greater the number of citations, the higher the cited page would rank. As times went by, dozens of other factors are also added to the algorithm, such as the location of the user, the freshness of the page, the quality of the page’s content, etc.
So, is Google biased then?
The answer to that question, sadly, is complicated. Google and other search engines essentially crowdsource every information available on the internet and as a result, even though the search engine technically doesn’t have an opinion, it tends to amplify whatever the prevalent consensus is for a given query at any given moment. If you belong to the majority, you’d think that Google is unbiased but for anyone with an unpopular opinion, it would seem that Google is indeed biased against you and as can be seen from his approval ratings, Donald Trump isn’t exactly a popular figure right now.
Additionally, Google has a team of ‘raters’ whose job is to evaluate whether top-ranked sites deserve those top billing by analyzing their overall quality using metrics such as trustworthiness and subject expertise. While the search algorithm itself is unbiased, Google’s employees are unquestionably human and it won’t be surprising that whatever subconscious bias they might have might inevitably filter into their work.