Web searches may sacrifice accuracy for popularity

May 18, 2010 by Chris Barncard

(PhysOrg.com) -- By adding a subtle nudge to each of more than 1 billion search requests every day, Google may be steering the direction of public discussion.

Begin typing a word in the search box at .com, and the Google Suggest feature starts kicking in ideas — "tiger" begets "tiger woods," "tea" draws "tea party movement" and "craig" will summon "craigslist."

"It is meant to be helpful, but from a public discourse perspective it is worrisome," says Dominique Brossard, a University of Wisconsin-Madison communication professor.

Brossard and four colleagues studied Google's data for nanotechnology-related search terms and the associated Google suggestions from October 2008 to September 2009.

In a study published in the May issue of Materials Today, the researchers found a reversal in the top 10 nano search terms, with (word such as "stocks," "jobs" and "companies") searches giving way to health ("medicine" and "cancer") searches over the course of a year.

By the time August 2009 arrived, users who typed "nanotechnology" into the box were getting a list of suggestions topped by "nanotechnology in medicine" despite the phrase's standing as the sixth-most popular nano search term.

The more people choose Google's suggestions, the more they click on one of the high-rated results for that search. And it's the content of highly clicked sites that inform future Google Suggest terms.

"Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google to sort search results, in part, based on how popular particular sites were," Brossard says. "For , that means that surfers may be offered the most popular results rather than the ones that best represent the current state of the science."

The effect, the researchers saw, was a slip down the most-popular list for nano-related content in areas such as public policy, social implications and applications like national security and environment.

"So you have a reinforcing spiral that pushes nanotechnology and health to the top, even though that health part is a small part of what the science is about and a small part of what people were searching for just a few months earlier," Brossard says.

More than two-thirds of adults in the United States turn to the Internet for information on science topics.

"But some people are missing out in the way that they are not getting the big picture about what this technology is about," Brossard says.

Nanotechnology information was a prime target for the research — which was funded by the National Science Foundation — but probably not alone in being swayed by search engine suggestions.

"It's the first study of this self-reinforcing spiral around Google search suggestions," says Brossard, who was joined in the study by UW-Madison life science communication professors Dietram Scheufele and Bret Shaw and graduate students Peter Ladwig and Ashley Anderson. "In all likelihood this is not unique to nanotechnology, and we could see similar self-reinforcing spirals in all sorts of areas of public discourse."

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Caliban
3 / 5 (5) May 18, 2010
"Do No Harm" my ass.
What surprises me is that this is considered news- for how long has it been Google's-among others- business model to allow paid content to rise to the top of any search result? That's a rhetorical question.
Regardless of their reputation as the good guys, and even though I've applauded many of their policy decisions, it remains apparent that most of google's decisions, while PR'd to appear as being in the "people's" interest, are invariably actually what is best for GOOGLE'S interests, and trending toward not "Too Big To Fail", but "Too Big To Give A Shit".
PinkElephant
4.2 / 5 (5) May 18, 2010
@Caliban,

Nice rant and all, but in this case the point of discussion centered on social selection of topics (click-through determines popularity) in the suggestion box, rather than sponsored search results. IOW, here Google is being accused (with some justification) of catalyzing, aiding, and abetting group-think. Then again, this isn't very different from reddit/digg/etc. So if Google is evil for doing it unintentionally, then those other content aggregators are doubly-evil for doing it intentionally and specifically building a business around it...
Caliban
3 / 5 (2) May 18, 2010
@PE
You are absolutely right. I've been busted for speeding. Just as I've busted others for doing the same, so it's only fair that you called me on it.

Still, very similar "steering" results, to my mind, at least. And I still don't think that Google is the "Gentle Giant" they would have everyone believe they are. As far as the other, opportunistic, reddit/digg, et al- they're just being good little freemarket entities, and, as much as it displeases me to say it, are free, at least, from the charge of hypocrisy in that regard.
Heretical
1 / 5 (8) May 19, 2010
Oh My! Speaking of hypocrisy, ahhh, it’s only going to get better kids, just wait till Obama and his minions take hold of the internet, you know…the one that Al Gore invented, you will all long for the days of the evil and opportunistic Google stronghold of sponsored free market search results. Can you say China firewall boys and girls? Shit, stop your bitching and whining, both of you appear to be fairly intelligent beings, and I surely hope that you are not going to stop using Google or Bing or any of the other free market biased search sites because you can’t find what you are looking for. I didn’t think so. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Heretical
1 / 5 (8) May 19, 2010
Oh My! Speaking of hypocrisy,it’s only going to get better kids, just wait till Obama and his minions take hold of the internet, you know…the one that Al Gore invented, you will all long for the days of the evil and opportunistic Google stronghold of sponsored free market search results. Can you say China firewall boys and girls? Stop your bitching and whining, both of you appear to be fairly intelligent beings, and I surely hope that you are not going to stop using Google or Bing or any of the other free market biased search sites because you can’t find what you are looking for. I didn’t think so. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
fleem
3 / 5 (2) May 19, 2010
I consider the group-think in google news far more dangerous than the typing help in the search text. And frankly I'm not so sure the socialist bias we see in the sites listed in google news are totally based on a popularity criteria.
GPG
5 / 5 (2) May 19, 2010
The more people choose Google's suggestions, the more they click on one of the high-rated results for that search. And it's the content of highly clicked sites that inform future Google Suggest terms.

Classic positive feedback loop.
HealingMindN
1 / 5 (1) May 19, 2010
The only ones that Google's intuitive search algorithm is affecting are the ones who fail to think independently - like real individuals. Not to worry. There are still real individual thinkers left in the world who know how to type in search for exactly what they want.

Healing Thoughts!
Parsec
5 / 5 (3) May 19, 2010
One of the ways in which Google has remained so popular is that they can sift through penta-bytes of information in milliseconds and deliver search results that have a solid chance of matching the consumer request. It is impossible to do this without some sort of filter. I am puzzled by the above posts suggesting that Google is evil because of this physical necessity. Does anyone have a better way?
JayK
3 / 5 (5) May 19, 2010
@Parsec: I see the problem more as "fitness" is overridden by popularity. When you end up with 1000 hits that have the same rounded fitness value, you have to sort somehow, and Google is just an example where popularity is the next factor used in the sort functionality. The only way to reduce the fad sorting would be through educating people on how to used advanced search features and better search parameters, but users have grown so used to the single line entry without using logical argument functions, that it appears nothing will change for society at large.

In a roundabout way, I think I just said: no, there really isn't a better way.
PinkElephant
4.2 / 5 (6) May 19, 2010
On the other hand, Google's pagerank algorithm is in itself "wisdom of the crowds" put in action. The original hypothesis behind the algorithm was that more informative and authoritative sources would be linked and/or referenced from other sites more frequently. However, with "other sites" containing an ever-growing number of social networking portals, one might wonder whether pagerank is emphasizing authoritativeness, informativeness, or mere popularity (i.e. fads), these days.
Tan0r5
not rated yet May 19, 2010
I wonder if it also applies to different internet providers? With the same search terms I get different results with Google at work than at home.
There is always limitations with any search engine. Besides the noise mentioned, I find a specific topic on one site. Days later I find this exact same topic, same wording on many sites without a hint of a citation. Of course in the beginning the other sites may be buried thousands of hits deeper in the results.
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2010
Yeah, google should offer a feature to turn this off, or at least separate a real search from a 'popularity' search. If your looking for backroom less popular stuff, it's very hard to find. At least provide some indicatation when a link is being displayed based on popularity and not fundamental searching.
Choice
not rated yet May 21, 2010
Sooner or later there is going to have to be a whole Internet Constitution! These things are infringing on basic liberties and rights such as free speech, privacy, association, equal protection, and due process.

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