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Google Biases Your Search for Scientific Information

Google Biases Your Search for Scientific Information

Top-ranked sites on Google have different thematic emphasis than lower-ranked sites

google, search results, content bias, content analysis, nanotechnology, scientific information, lmgtfy

For most people in the world, Google is the main portal to knowledge. As the biggest search engine in the world, with more than 7 billion page views a day, all internet traffic seems to be guided by Google. Also, if you are not googling how to remove coffee stains from your carpet, you will be using any of Google’s other products: Gmail, Android, Google maps, Youtube, or Google Analytics, to name a few. (Besides, are you reading this article in Chrome?).

When it comes to the internet, Google is the most powerful player. So powerful that it has become a verb. That this upgrade in language is quite significant becomes clear in the attempts of Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) to get this linguistic privilege as well by using a bit too evident product placement. Google opens up the world to everyone, but also defines how you see it. No wonder they made Google glasses.

With Google by your side, it seems that there is no excuse to not know something. Not only is it possible to know how to make perfect mashed potatoes, as taught by Paul McCartney, but also what has been published in the last couple of months on discoveries of black holes, empirical studies on the economic crisis and new insights into possible cures that biomolecular science has to offer for cancer. For science, Google has proven to be an important tool for gathering knowledge and information, but also to making science available for a broad, and global, public.

However, search results can have a certain bias. A big number of studies looked at the ways in which search engines index and rank web content and how this affects the diversity of online information and found that there is definitely a tendency to privilege already dominant sites, which automatically leads to an under representation of minor websites. Furthermore, studies show that the quality and accuracy of science content on the web is far from adequate. This asymmetric representation of scientific information thus narrows the utility of the internet in society when it comes to science.

In a recently published article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication researchers conduct a content analysis to find out whether there is a dominance of certain content and themes in highly ranked web sites in Google’s search results. In their study, they compared the content of the top ten search results versus the content of the search results 11 to 32 with the search term ‘nanotechnology’. To acquire this data, they wrote a data collection program that collected this content data once a week for more than a year.

The results of this content analysis show that there is definitely a content skew between the top-ranked and the lower-ranked sites on Google. When googling for nanotechnology, the top ten search results showed a thematic emphasis on environment, risk and technology, while the search results 11 to 32 had more emphasis on regulation, business and health. Therefore, there is a content bias and a Google search for scientific information can provide a result that is skewed. However, this content analysis does not examine the mechanism that underlies the filtering process and therefore provides limited information. This does give rise to new questions. Since the results show us a content bias, it would be interesting to look to what extent the search results overlap with public opinion and whether Google would benefit from a certain content bias?

As a gatekeeper for (scientific) information, Google manages what web users get to see and get to know. So if you came to this article through Google, think twice about the viewpoints and accuracy.

To see if Google really might be altering your views, participate in our experiment. Google something on your field of expertise and see what the search results tell you. Is this a good representation of your subject area? Let us know in the comments.

References:
Photo: Flickr, woodleywonderworks

Li, N., Anderson, A.A., Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D.A. (2013). Channeling Science Information Seekers’
Attention? A Content Analysis of Top-Rankedvs. Lower-Ranked Sites in Google Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcc4.12043

content analysis content bias Google lmgtfy nanotechnology scientific information search results

This post was written by Nura Rutten:
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1 Comment

  • biogirl
    January 8, 2014, 20:42

    I’ve also noticed that Google search results are different depending on what computer I am searching from. I assume this is because their algorithm takes that computer’s previous web browsing history into consideration.

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