Every day millions of people use internet search engines for business, research, entertainment, and other various tasks. Many likely use search engines the way they would use a dictionary or, in days gone by, a phone book. The assumption might be that the search engine is value neutral: you plug in search terms and your desired query pops up with your results. But we should recognize that few things in life are truly value neutral. Software programmers have made decisions on how search engines work, and they have made value judgments about how the search engine should function. There are several different ways their value judgments appear in the seemingly innocuous use of a search engine.
I used to work for a Christian nonprofit organization that strategized how our institution could come up on the first page of a search (i.e., search engine optimization). One of the ways to do this was to ensure certain key words were embedded in our web pages so that, if those words were searched for, our web site would have a greater chance of appearing on the first page of a search. This was the low-cost option. The higher-cost option was to pay for our organization to appear first. We decided to budget a certain amount of money to use ad words to boost our odds of coming up on the first search results page. When you search for “books,” for example, why do Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million appear on the first page of the seventeen billion-plus results that come up? This is largely because they have paid the search engine company. Like placing a large phone book advertisement that catches your eye when flipping through its pages, companies spend money to ensure that their business comes up early in your search. Such a value judgment may make for good business, but does it mean that he who spends the most money is necessarily the best fountain of knowledge? In other words, just because someone pays to get to the top doesn’t mean that it is a click-worthy link.
A Cultural Mirror
When you type in a search query, one of the most common factors that accounts for initial results is the auto-complete function. One of the more popular forms of the auto-complete phenomenon is Wired.com’s series of auto-complete interviews. These videos feature one or more celebrities answering popular search queries that appear such as, “What is [insert celebrity name]’s real name, favorite movie, or favorite food.” Each of the suggested auto-completes represents the most popularly searched queries on the internet. But this raises the question: Is a search engine a genuine database of knowledge, or have software engineers designed search engines to reflect the people using them? Do you access a knowledge database or a cultural mirror? The answer to this question likely hinges on what type of query you enter. Type in “original sin is” and you’ll see a number of different auto-complete suggestions: “a lie,” “wrong,” and “not biblical” are among the most popular. On the other hand, if you enter a search for “best book on Christology,” several different options appear, such as a listing of books on Christology, blogs that discuss the doctrine, and booksellers. The first search is more of a cultural mirror that reflects the people using the search engine to explore doctrines like original sin, whereas the second is more objective in that it gives numerous links to different books on Christology, though even then someone’s subjective opinion made a value judgment on which books to list or not list.