Cover Page

Digital Media and Society Series

Nancy Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2nd edition

Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle, The Internet of Things

Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube

Mark Deuze, Media Work

Andrew Dubber, Radio in the Digital Age

Charles Ess, Digital Media Ethics, 2nd edition

Jordan Frith, Smartphones as Locative Media

Alexander Halavais, Search Engine Society, 2nd edition

Martin Hand, Ubiquitous Photography

Robert Hassan, The Information Society

Tim Jordan, Hacking

Graeme Kirkpatrick, Computer Games and the Social Imaginary

Leah A. Lievrouw, Alternative and Activist New Media

Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner, Mobile Communication

Donald Matheson and Stuart Allan, Digital War Reporting

Dhiraj Murthy, Twitter, 2nd edition

Zizi A. Papacharissi, A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age

Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging, 2nd edition

Patrik Wikström, The Music Industry, 2nd edition

Search Engine Society

Second Edition




In 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised an alarm about the influence of search on the web: “Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information” (Connolly 2016). While there have, over time, been many criticisms of the effect of search engines on society, this brings us to the very point of many of them: search reduces the amount of information available to us, and in doing so introduces bias.

Perhaps you come to this book wondering whether search engines are biased. They are. It would be impossible for them to be otherwise. Indeed, that is their intended function. A perfect mirror, reflecting the web and other knowledge spaces precisely, would serve little purpose. We want search engines to act as a filter, removing the less important stuff, so that we can apply our naturally limited attention to what really matters.

Matters to whom? That is perhaps the most important question we can ask about how search has changed our social lives. Over nearly a decade since the first edition of this book was published, a new focus has emerged around questions of algorithmic culture, on the power of hidden processes that shape our information space, and how economic and political relations are encoded into platforms and networks. Naturally, these questions have existed much longer, and have often been central to the study of large sociotechnical systems for decades, but the rapid integration of the internet into the everyday lives of most of the planet’s population has given new rise to questions of how these often invisible biases might be affecting what it is to be a human of the twenty-first century.

Search engines and social platforms have quietly been at the forefront of algorithmic culture, reshaping the web, and, by extension, much of the way in which we interact with one another. No one has missed the rise of the largest search engine company, Google, as one of the new economic powerhouses of the last few decades. But the focus has largely been on the ways in which Google has profited from advertising, or its seeming growth into a company that provides everything from education to automobiles, rather than the core technology that drove its growth. The search engine seems so unassuming, working quietly in the background, changing the structure of our lives.

The answer

Take a moment and type the following search string into your favorite search engine: “Google is your friend.” Today, the number of “hits” for that phrase on Google stands at “about 882,000.” The company is successful, but who knew it was so friendly? Even the abbreviation of the phrase – GIYF – receives over 100,000 hits. If you have picked up this book, you can probably guess the context in which this phrase is used. If not, a description may be found at justfuckinggoog, which reads, in part:

Google Is Your Friend

All Smart People Use Google

It Appears That You Are Not One Of Them

The search engine has become so much a part of our culture that there is a common assumption that we have found a cure for stupid questions. Folded into that assumption, we find a host of others: that even the unintelligent have access to and can use a search engine, that a search engine will lead someone to a page that contains accurate information, and that questions are best directed first to a machine.

Unpacking the black box of the search engine is something of interest not only to technologists and marketers, but to anyone who wants to understand how we make sense of a newly networked world. Search engines and social platforms have come to play a central role in corralling and controlling the ever-growing sea of information that is available to us, and yet they are trusted more readily than they ought to be. They freely provide, it seems, a sorting of the wheat from the chaff, and answer our most profound and most trivial questions. They have become an object of faith.

We ask many things of search engines – what do they ask in return? Search engines are at once the most and the least visible part of the digital, networked revolution. The modern search engine has taken on the mantle of what the ancients of many cultures thought of as an oracle: a source of knowledge about our world and who we are. Children growing up in the twenty-first century have only ever known a world in which search engines could be queried, and almost always provide some kind of an answer, even if it may not be the best one.

The mirror

Search engines appear to be merely a functional tool, aimed at making the real work of the web easier, but they have the potential to reveal to us not only their internal structures, but the structures of the societies that build them. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare (1912, p. 35) hints at why an examination of search engines is so enticing:

And in such indexes, although small pricks
To their subsequent volumes, there is seen
The baby figure of the giant mass
Of things to come at large.

Search engines represent the filters through which we view the content of the web, screens that allow us to inflict our own desires on the “giant mass” of the web, taming it and making it useful. At the same time, the view it presents is likely to shape future social values.

In his book Information please, Mark Poster (2006) reminds us of the change that has occurred: we once asked people for information and now we ask machines. He is interested in how this change to machine-mediated information affects our interactions. But it is all too easy to forget that the machines we are asking are constructed in ways that already reflect the conceptions and values of their makers.

What has changed

Much of the search landscape has changed since the first edition of this book, but a remarkable amount has remained the same. This is reflected in the content of the second edition, which retains much of the structure of the original, and many of the central arguments. But writing books about internet phenomena is a cursed task; books exist outside of “internet time” (Karpf 2011). In the months between completing the manuscript of the first edition of this book and its publication, Google had reversed their approach to sociable search, and a dozen other changes had happened to the search ecosystem. No doubt, by the time this is in your hands, search will have evolved in ways not anticipated by this second edition. Updates and other materials will appear at the book’s companion site:

I would like to thank those who read and responded to the first edition and particularly those who found the book useful to their own thinking and writing. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing the work of other scholars who were able to use my book as a point of reference or a foil. And I would like to thank my wife and my two sons, the youngest of whom was especially eager to know when this edition would be completed and I could focus my attention on what he considered more pressing matters.

We have come full circle in the years since the first edition. Many have thought seriously about search engines, “algorithms,” and what they mean for our culture. But we are moving into a new era of search, one in which it disappears even more quickly from view. When search becomes invisible – answering factual questions without reference to the source, or deciding which of our friends provides the best content on social platforms – it becomes even more vital to watch, to test, and to understand how search and discovery technologies are changing us. Especially as the technology employs ever more complicated and capable algorithms, we too will evolve in our relationship to knowledge and to each other. We should do so carefully and consciously.