Six searches that show the power of Google
- 26 April 2016
- From the section Magazine
There is a word that you never heard anyone use 20 years ago. But today, according to research from Lancaster University, which examined millions of words of casual conversation, it crops up more frequently than "clever", "eggs", "fridge", or "death". That word is Google.
To search is to Google, to Google is to search.
"Google is considered to be a synonym for search," says Danny Sullivan of searchengineland.com. "People talk about Googling things - it has become that dominant, both in usage and in the mindshare [the measure of consumer awareness]."
With more than 90% of the market in much of the world, Google's dominance in the vital and lucrative business of searching the internet is clear. But does its mysterious and ever-changing search algorithm have too much power? Does this one force exert excessive influence over the information we all access, the success or failure of businesses, the reputation of individuals and even which political ideas triumph?
That is what we have been exploring in a programme for Radio 4. In the course of making the programme one tool proved invaluable - a Google search. So let's look at the power of Google via six searches.
Search 1: How does Google search work?
The first result here is a Google infographic which takes us on a journey through crawling and indexing the web to algorithms "which understand what you mean" to the ranking of pages - without really giving away any secrets. So let's turn to Ben Gomes. High up in the results for his name is an article describing him as Google's "guru of search".
He says the challenge is to understand what is going on in the searcher's mind. "The perfect search is giving you what you were looking for. Not just the words you typed - but what you were actually looking for."
This quest for what Google thinks is the perfect search means constant tweaking of the algorithm - as many as a thousand changes a year - and an ongoing battle with those trying to "game" it. And every time there is a major change, there are victims.
Search 2: Trout flies
This search produced one ad, some images, and a list of angling suppliers. Ninth in the list - but still on the first page - was a link to the Essential Fly. That will be a relief to the business's owner Andy Kitchener, who is still scarred by what happened when Google made big changes in its algorithm in 2013.
Suddenly new business melted away when search terms like "trout flies" no longer put his business anywhere near the front page.
Since then other changes have made the Essential Fly more prominent again. From the search firm's point of view it is just aiming to make things work better for users, often rooting out spammy links designed to push pages artificially higher.
But Kitchener is still angry about the power of Google: "It's horrifying - it's like having someone in your business that you don't know , that will make their own demands and change the rules in an instant. It's just a rollercoaster."
Search 3: Hotels Tallinn
There are questions over whether the simplicity and purity of a search process - which used to give you what Google called "ten blue links" - has been diluted.
Search for something like "hotels Tallinn" and what you will find is some paid ads at the top, then a map with a box showing some links. If you're searching on a phone that's all you'll see at first - you have to scroll down to find what Google calls "organic" results.
Now, according to rivals Yelp and Tripadvisor, which have complained about this practice, that map at the top is peopled by restaurants or hotels reviewed on Google+ rather than their more popular review services.
Yelp's Vice President of Public Policy Luther Lowe says this is an example of Google abusing its power. "The problem arises when you leverage your dominance in one business area and begin using that unfairly to go into adjacent business areas."
Google's Ben Gomes replies that, once again, it's all about the user. "What we're trying to return to you is the answer to what you're looking for. You're looking for restaurants, we're giving you restaurants." But European regulators seem sceptical - they are investigating this and other areas where Google stands accused of abusing its dominance in search.
Search 4: Can Google affect the result of an election
But is there a risk that its market dominance and the sheer power of the Google algorithm could even determine who rules us?
Any search around this topic will throw up articles quoting Dr Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research. He says his research showed that where candidates or parties appeared in search results it could influence elections. "It will shift the opinions of undecided people so dramatically that just being higher in search rankings can win someone an election."
Challenged as to whether Google engineers would really tweak the algorithm to favour one candidate, he says that wouldn't surprise him, and there was always scope for a rogue employee to do that.
But he says that the worst possibility was that their algorithm could do it. "The computer program is always going to put things into an order and in every election it's almost certainly going to put one candidate ahead of another." And that, he says, means elections are being decided by the algorithm.
Google has described Dr Epstein's research as a "flawed conspiracy theory" and says it has never changed search rankings to manipulate user sentiment.
David Auerbach, a technology columnist at Slate who worked on search at Google for five years, agrees that there is no conscious manipulation going on. But he does see something called emergent bias, where even if Google is producing what it regards as relevant results, "there's no guarantee that those results are objective because people don't necessarily think the most objective sources are the most relevant sources."
Search 5: Mario Costeja Gonzalez
Nowadays, this search brings up details of the court case which saw the so-called right to be forgotten - allowing individuals to have certain search results removed - enshrined in European law.
It was brought by a Spaniard, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was upset that a search for his name always brought up in first place an obscure newspaper article from 1998 referring to the forced sale of a property due to some social security debts.
From sizing up someone before a first date to assessing a job candidate, a Google search has become the natural way to find out about someone. But does it give a true picture, particularly when it comes to relatively obscure people without much of a web presence?
Dr Julia Powles, a Cambridge University expert on the law and technology, does not think so. "The illusion or delusion of Google is that we're getting some version of the truth but it's whatever information is available on a rough scraping of the public web. The information that's on there can define you."
Search 6: Unprofessional Hair
This search is notable because of what it shows in terms of images - the pictures are almost all of black women. So is the algorithm just a bit racist?
Google's Ben Gomes says the real explanation is that it just isn't smart enough yet to understand all the nuances of language. He says some of the pages linked to these images talk of why a hairstyle popular with black women is not unprofessional. "Our algorithms today are not able to pick up on that very complex nuance of the double negative in it, or the subtlety of that discussion."
But as well as struggling with nuance, he says the search engine can just reflect societal bias.
And as for Google engineers, their bias is towards trusting the science behind search. "We've always taken the view that this is an algorithmic process, and that we do not interfere with that algorithmic process."
Looking back over my recent Google history, I find I've made 356 searches in the past month, and nearly all of them have turned up just what I was seeking in under a second.
But the information delivered to me and countless millions around the world is now determined by algorithms which even Google's engineers don't fully understand. And that makes me just a little uneasy..
Find out more
Rory Cellan-Jones presents The Force of Google on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST on Tuesday 26 April. You can catch up via BBC iPlayer Radio.
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