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

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 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 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.

During a May 2011 Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk, Pariser called this phenomenon the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.” He warned that it results in a situation where “the internet shows us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see,” adding: “Instead of a balanced education diet, [we] end up with information junk food.”

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In the early days of the internet, it was believed that the web would widen our connections with the world and expose us to new perspectives, Pariser said: Instead of being limited to the newspapers, books, and other writings available in our local communities, we would have access to information from all over the globe. But thanks to these new search-engine formulas, he said, the internet instead is coming to represent “a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers [of information] to algorithmic ones.”

Yet, algorithms don’t have the kind of embedded ethics that human editors have, he noted. If algorithms are going to curate the world for us, then “we need to make sure they’re not just keyed to [personal] relevance—they also should show us things that are important, or challenging, or uncomfortable.”

The new web-search rules affect not just how we perceive the world, but also how we shape it.

If students, researchers, and educators want their writings, videos, websites, and other online works to appear near the top of an internet search, they’ll have to understand how these new rules work in order to take advantage of them, says Angela Maiers, an educator, writer, consultant, and professional trainer. And that’s important, she says, because web surfers rarely click beyond the first or second page of search results.

The major search engines now rank web pages not just by how relevant they might be to individual users, but also by the “Klout” score of their publisher, Maiers told attendees of the 2011 Building Learning Communities conference in July.

Klout is a measure of your social media influence across the web. It takes into account the number of internet connections you’ve made, the frequency of your online contributions, and the size of your social media following. The more consistently you participate in online social media—such as by blogging, or tweeting, or leaving comments on websites—the higher your Klout score will be.

As the new rules of internet search make clear, if students and faculty want their ideas to be seen online, they must build a strong social media presence, Maiers said. She recommended that educators teach social media skills to their students and give them a chance to create, collaborate, and contribute online. “In turn, students will build Klout,” she said—which will help them exert “a personal influence on the world.”

The larger our online social networks are, Maiers concluded, the more authority we’ll possess on the web—and the better our search results will be, too. If we make a diverse group of connections online, she explained, we’re more likely to be exposed to different points of view in our internet searches.

For this reason, Maiers said, the lessons we learned in kindergarten seem especially relevant for the digital world: how to make friends, listen, share, be polite, ask questions, be curious and open-minded … and generally be a good person.

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Dennis Pierce

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