Page 28 - Forest Row Local January Edition
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28 January 2022 • Forest Row Local
Search: Ranking and Yanking
 Search engines such as Bing have come a long way from the early, easily misled search efforts of year ago. They do a brilliant job as your guide to the internet, finding wonderful websites and interesting nuggets for your every whim. It is interest that so many mention that they are ‘powered by’ someone else. What is going on?
At first glance there seem to be plenty of search engines. Choose your favourite from among a crowd that resounds with such delightful names as Ecosia, Swisscows and Dogpile. While demand for search engines has grown tremendously over the years, the number of large English- language searching services
has fallen quite substantially. Or rather, the number that maintain their own searching capability has shrunk. It now stands at less than a handful of big names: Google, Bing and Yandex (a search engine based in Russia).
All the remaining, teaming pool
of search sites I have checked
are repackaging these primary companies’ output to which they add their own spin on privacy, child safety or ecology. So if one of the big companies sneezes, stutters or meddles with its results, everyone else catches the bug.
For these big three modern-day printing presses, being seen to
be independent and reliable is a tricky task. When you search, they must choose the most relevant and ‘authoritative’ results while
weeding out the more outrageous efforts to jump the queue to the top of the search list. In addition to this challenge, there is growing enthusiasm by official bodies in every country to limit the spread of unwanted, unorthodox or inconvenient information across a range of subjects. Between these factors, the winds of bias blow in many directions but are curated by the search company.
Among the big three, Google is pre-eminent: upto 94% of Western searches use its systems. That
is a huge responsibility placed upon a single company. Google recently committed itself to promote ‘authoritative’ material to address some notable instances of unreliable information. Wonderful in principle, the trouble lies in the question: who gets to decide what is ‘authoritative’ and what is dross? Your heart-felt truth may be their nonsense.
A range of anecdotes loudly report that Google goes beyond trying to enhance the quality of its results. The suggestion is that amongst the balancing act of its algorithms and handling of topics, Google also maintains other filters such
as a blacklist of sites: membership would have the dubious honour of obscurity in search listings. Bing and Yandex both produce different results to Google – and this would be expected to a degree since each applies a different approach. However, in this post-truth era of shallow trust and rampant rumour- rustling, it is tempting to recognise
By Roger Lyon -
these different results as evidence of institutional bias, censorship
or worse. Google’s occasional morally (and legally) doubtful action only makes it easier to conceive this suspicion.
Are these whispers true, or simply the sour grapes of internet anxiety? While I have been
unable to reproduce the claims of blacklisting, the potential exists.
In fact, it is already realised in Google’s willingness to accede to the Chinese government’s demand to suppress results for users in China across many thousands of websites.
The big search companies have
the resources to invest in new technology. There is talk of AI-mediated conversations with search engines – Siri on steroids, as it were – to better serve your style of searching. Whether this sounds like a gift or yet another deeper intrusion into your privacy depends on your perspective. At the same time, there are lively fringe projects such as roll-your-own search engines run by community-minded nerds to which you can contribute a server subscription to boost their success. These may yet transform into powerful movements towards unfettered search and possibly even a challenge to Google’s search dominance...perhaps. Searchengines
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