Search Engines, SEO and Ethics: The Need For Disclosure- Part 2

a chart to describe the search engine market

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Search Engines and Society

The internet and specifically search engines have dramatically altered how people find information. Gone are the days when people use the library primarily for research, entertainment, or pleasure reading for that matter. Search engines are now the mainstay for information seekers. According to the work of Lawrence and Giles (1999) and Thurow (2003), 85% of users use search engines to find information. This number is considerably high today considering the explosion of Google, Bing and other search tools. Salter and Michael (2003) contribute that approximately 80% of websites are found using search engines, and one in four of these users use search engines on a daily basis.

These statistics point to two things:

  1. People rely heavily on search engines to find sites rather than users remembering the site address themselves; and,
  2. It is clear why companies covet the top spot in search rankings.

People search for a multitude of reasons: buying goods, researching decisions (travel destinations etc.), school and work projects, catching up on current affairs or for entertainment. It is not just academics, students, and tech savvy individuals that use the internet; people from all social classes and backgrounds use the internet as a search tool and depend on it for up to date and accurate information to meet their needs. Therefore, search engines have a large impact of the information seeking practices within society.

Search engines have enabled individuals to do a lot of the work librarians did previous to the development of the internet. People no longer have to go to the library to do research or find information on a topic; they just simply have to search in their preferred search engine. As Blanke (2005) puts it, search engines “are the entry points to the webs freedom”. However, with the open access to information that search engines provide, people now take on the risk associated with using search engines to find information.

In The Internet, Information Machines, and the Technologies of the Self (2007), Fernando Elichirigoity discusses new technologies, specifically the internet, and the effect it has on the self. Elichirigoity identifies the flaws the modernist notion of universal access to information and the essentialist notion of information’s “innate goodness” There are many issues that surround universal access to information that are not about information as good or beneficial to society, especially through search engines.

Issues such as misunderstanding, misinformation, deceit, blackmail, fraud, along with many different technical tricks of the trade (spamming, identity theft, etc.) create grave risks as well as the empowerment that people experience with the open access to information provided by search engines. Elichirigoity uses the example of individual control of personal finances to make this point clear. This “avalanche of financial information and tools” (similar to the avalanche of information available through search engines) has made it possible for people to take control of their financial self, but this has also created a measure of risk for individuals. 

However, the technology cannot be blamed for its content because, as Blanke suggests, “Computers are symbol-manipulating machines: they do nothing else but substitute symbols with other symbols and process data without real knowledge about what it means. Search engines work the same way; though they are meant to retrieve information, they actually retrieve data”. 

Joseph Weizenbaum adds “what search engines still cannot do and probably will also not be able to do in the near future is to understand the content of what they retrieve and reflect in their relevance decisions. These comments call into question the human input in using these technologies in an ethical manner. Since search engines act in accordance to technical coding, ranking and indexing algorithms, there is room for manipulation of these processes. This industry is called search engine optimization, an industry that adds to the problems and risks internet users face when search for information via search engines.

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