Monday 9 May 2022

Peering into the World's Biggest Search Engine

 If you type “cat” into Google, sone of the top results are for Caterpillar machinery

By Martin Cohen and Keith Tidman

How does Google work? The biggest online search engine has long become ubiquitous in everyday personal and professional life, accounting for an astounding 70 percent of searches globally. It’s a trillion-plus-dollar company with the power to influence, even disrupt, other industries. And yet exactly how it works, beyond broad strokes, remains somewhat shrouded.

So, let’s pull back the curtain a little, if we can, to try observing the cogs whirring behind that friendly webpage interface. At one level, Google’s approach is every bit as simple as imagined. An obvious instance being that a lot of factual queries often simply direct you to Wikipedia on the upper portion of the first displayed page.

Of course, every second, Google performs extraordinary feats, such as searching billions of pages in the blink of an eye. However, that near-instantaneity on the computing dimension is, these days, arguably the easiest to get a handle on — and something we have long since taken for granted. What’s more nuanced is how the search engine appears to evaluate and weigh information.

That’s where web crawlers can screen what motivates: like possibly prioritizing commercial partners, and on occasion seeming to favor particular social and political messages. Or so it seems. Given the stakes in company revenue, those relationships are an understandable approach to running a business. Indeed, it has been reported that some 90% of earnings come from keyword-driven, targeted advertising.

It’s no wonder Google plays up the idea that its engineers are super-smart at what they do. What Google wants us to understand is that its algorithm is complex and constantly changing, for the better. We are allowed to know that when Google decides which search results are most important, pages are ranked by how many other sites link to them — with those sites in turn weighted in importance by their own links.

It’s also obvious that Google performs common-sense concordance searches on the exact text of your query. If you straightforwardly ask, “What is the capital of France?” you will reliably and just as straightforwardly be led to a page saying something like “Paris is the capital of France.” All well and good, and unpretentious, as far as those sorts of one-off queries go.

But what might raise eyebrows among some Google users is the placing of commercial sites above or at least sprinkled amidst factual ones. If you ask, “What do cats eat?” you are led to a cat food manufacturer’s website close to the top of the page, with other informational links surrounding it as if to boost credibility. And if you type “cat” into Google, the links that we recently found near the top of the first page took us not to anything furry and feline  –  but to clunking, great, Caterpillar machinery.

Meanwhile, take a subject that off and on over the last two-plus years has been highly polarizing and politicized — rousing ire, so-called conspiracy theories, and presumptuousness that cleave society across several fronts — like the topical query: “Do covid vaccines have side effects?” Let’s put aside for a moment what you might already be convinced is the answer, either way — whether a full-throated yea or nay.

As a general matter, people might want search engines to reflect the range of context and views — to let searchers ultimately do their own due diligence regarding conflicting opinions. Yet, the all-important first page at Google started, at the time of this particular search, with four sites identified as ads. Followed by several other authoritative links, bunched under ‘More results’, pointing to the vaccine indeed being safe. So, let’s say, you’ll be reassured, but have you been fully informed, to help you understand background and accordingly to make up your own mind?

When we put a similar query to Yahoo!, for comparison, the results were a bit more diverse. Sure, two links were from one of the same sources as Google’s, but a third link was quite a change of pace: a blog suggesting there might be some safety issues, including references to scholarly papers to make sense of the data and conclusions. Might one, in the spirit of avoiding prejudgment, conclude that diversity of information better honours searchers’ agency?

Some people suggest that the technology at Google is rooted in its procedural approach to the science behind it. As a result, it seems that user access to the best information may play second fiddle to mainstream opinion and commercialization, supported, as it has been said, by harvested user data. Yet, isn’t all that the adventurist economic and business model many countries embrace in the name of individual agency and national growth?

Google has been instrumental, of course, in globally democratising access to information in ways undreamt of by history’s cleverest minds. Impressively vast knowledge at the world’s fingertips. But as author Ken Auletta said, “Naïveté and passion make a potent mix; combine the two with power and you have an extraordinary force, one that can effect great change for good or for ill.” Caveat emptor, in other words, despite what one might conclude are good intentions.

Might the savvy technical and business-theoretical minds at Google therefore continue parsing company strategies and search outcomes, as they inventively reshape the search engine’s operational model? And will that continual reinvention help to validate users’ experiences in quests for information intended not only to provide definitive answers but to inform users’ own prioritization and decision-making?

Martin Cohen investigates ‘How Does Google Think’ in his new book, Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving fro Sun Tzu to Google, which was published by Imprint Academic last month.

1 comment:

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I recently took to re-reading David C. Korten. In his book 'When Corporations Rule the World', he has some statistics under 'Democracy for Hire'. For example, in the USA, paying clients outnumbered news reporters in the press, and that was back in 2001. Again, the danger lies in creating dynamics which reality cannot sustain. Somewhere, things have to break.

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