News

New web-search formulas have huge implications for students and society

By Dennis Pierce, Editor
August 10th, 2011

When web surfers use Google or Bing to look for information, the search results they now see at the top of the page might differ from those of their neighbor.

A quiet revolution has taken place in recent months, as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and other internet gatekeepers have revised their search algorithms in an attempt to bring users more personalized information. This subtle shift has enormous implications for students, researchers, and society at large, experts say.

When web surfers use Google or Bing to look for information about, say, the national debt, the search results they now see at the top of the page might differ from those of their neighbor. That’s because all the major search engines have revamped their formulas to include social media data as key indicators of a website’s importance.

Every time we click on an internet link, we’re contributing to our online profile. In effect, we’re telling Google (and Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Facebook), “This is a source I like and trust.” Now, the ranking systems of all the major search engines take these hundreds of little endorsements we make every day and use them to deliver information that the companies behind these tools assume we’ll value: The links from our most “trusted” sources—such as our friends, or the websites we visit every day—appear at the top of our search results.

The reasoning behind this game-changing move is to help us sift through the overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips. The major search companies recognize that we need a filtering system to save us from information overload, and the system they’ve created now relies more heavily on our history of preferences than on an objective calculation of relevance to bring certain resources to the front of the pack.

To use the example above, if my online circle of friends and connections includes MoveOn.org and the Democratic National Committee, I’m likely to see a story about the national debt from a source like the liberal-leaning Huffington Post at the top of my search results. If you’ve made an online contribution to the NRA, the same search query might serve up a series of Fox News stories for you.

This is how sites like Amazon.com and Netflix have been sorting our potential shopping or movie-rental choices for years. But looking for a good novel you hope to enjoy isn’t the same as looking for objective information about a topic. This stealthy rewriting of the rules for internet search could have a profound effect on how we make sense of, and make our mark on, the world.

For one thing, it has the potential to narrow our worldview instead of broadening it, says Eli Pariser, an online organizer and author of the book The Filter Bubble.