Political Economy of Search Engines

As the Internet continues to evolve as a medium, so do the various opinions and beliefs on the social implications of this medium. The initial optimism that accompanied the Internet during its formative years hailed it as a democratizing medium that would facilitate a positive reconstruction of society. This school of thought, sometimes referred to as techno-populism, has been counterbalanced by an increasingly vocal body of criticism that believes the Internet will ultimately be appropriated by dominant interests, that will simply reassert power relationships in society. According to McChesney (2000), the Internet will “likely be dominated by the usual corporate suspects.”

In the past several years, the growing influence of commercial search engines has resulted in greater scrutiny of the political economics of the industry. Search engines have come under scrutiny for several reasons: First, they are becoming increasingly embedded in the daily online activities of users. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2005), 84% of Internet users have used a search engine at some point and on any given day. Furthermore, the majority of search engine use takes place in four commercially-driven search engines: Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL (Nielsen, 2006). To this date, no non-profit or non-commercial search engine has emerged as a viable alternative.

One practice that is often criticized involves the inclusion of sponsored results. According to Hargittai (2004), sponsored link designations are sometimes ambiguous. This notion is substantiated by research from a Pew Internet and American Life project (2005) survey project, which revealed that 62% of search engine users were unaware of a difference between paid and unpaid results. A focus group study of search engine users by Hotchkiss (2004) revealed drastically different results. In this study, 80% of users skipped sponsored listings and went directly to organic results. The Hotchkiss study also indicated discrepancies in judgment of sponsored listings between the major search engines, with Google users having the best understanding of which results were organic and sponsored.

Several academics have studied the social implications of search engines from a political economy perspective. Introna and Nissenbaum (2000) study concludes that there is a tendency on the part of search engines, to favor “popular, wealthy, and powerful sites at the expense of others.” Their conclusion is primarily based on research into search engine ranking and indexing methodology. Based on this methodology, they “predict” that search engine users are most likely to visit Web sites of organizations who A) have designers with the technical savvy to create search-friendly sites; and B) who have the financial resources to pay for placement in search engines and directories. Their conclusion is not supported by any empirical or anecdotal evidence, rather, it is based on an assumption that the existence of a certain type of methodology is intrinsically linked to influence by dominant interests.

Similarly, Hargittai’s (2004) investigation into the framing of content on search engines and portals concludes that they are heavily influenced by commercial motives. Relying mostly on secondary research and economic theory, she concludes that the commercial nature of positioning on major portals negatively influences the overall quality of information that is available to users who are visiting these portals. Like Introna and Nissenbaum, she points to a positive association between financially powerful organizations and an ability to influence search engine rankings without referencing any anecdotal or empirical evidence.

A third study, by Hindman et. al (2003), distinguishes between retrievability (possibility of being seen) and visibility (likelihood of being seen). The study concludes that various categories of information are dominated by a small handful of sites, a situation they refer to as “Googlearchy.” Although their research supports their hypothesis that a small group of sites exerts disproportionately high influence on search engine rankings, they do not provide further evidence that would necessarily associate these influential entities to dominant offline commercial or political organizations. Their study alludes to further examination into the nature of the sites, which allegedly shows a lack of any “hint of grass-roots flavor,” but this conclusion is not supported by any data present in the article, nor do they provide any sort of methodology for how they focused on this component of the study.

Although there is a substantial body of theoretical discourse on the political economy of search engines, many of these findings are not supported by substantive evidence.