Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What We Don't Find When We Search

Last Sunday the New York Times ran an interesting op-ed on the subject of search neutrality, the principle that search engine results should be "comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance", rather than on any particular editorial policy (or commercial incentives).

Given our reliance on search engines as the standard first step in seeking and filtering information you'd think search neutrality would be a bigger topic of discussion. But aside from periodic grumblings and misgivings about how Google has aided and abetted political censorship in China, we don't spend a whole lot of time talking about other ways that search engines exclude, censor, or bias our searches for information.

Of course online researchers like Mary Ellen Bates, educators who are trying to get their students to do more than just cite Wikipedia, and frankly the whole field of search engine marketing talk about this subject plenty. But the topic isn't one that is picked up on very often by nonprofits who have a unique stake in search neutrality or by most individuals who simply use search engines to find basic information.

Maybe this is just one of those topics we don't want to have to think or talk about, something we would rather believe just takes care of itself. Kind of like we prefer to believe that people have equal access to the polls, that town hall meetings are "open", or that anyone can get a letter to the editor published. Ugggh, can't we just assume it's being taken care of? Well, as Adam Raff's op-ed reminds us, no we can't.

Because Raff's op-ed focuses largely on Google, let me come clean right away. IssueLab has a pretty longstanding love affair with Google. We use Google apps to collaborate, Google mail to communicate, and Google maps to navigate research on IssueLab. We are grateful for a Google grant that allows us to leverage AdWords and we even publish our quarterly board reports using a Google site. Yet at the same time when we explain what IssueLab does we often start by explaining what Google doesn't do. We spend a lot of our time finding and sharing hard to find research because we know that it isn't coming up in Google search results. We explain how Google's algorithms, bless their little binary hearts, sometimes privilege the largest and most popular nonprofits by including link popularity in the ranking of search results. I am not saying this isn't a relevant measure but it's worth our while to ask whether it's a neutral measure and to question what all goes into link popularity itself, such as organizational resources and brand awareness. (Despite the number of online contests that give prizes to those nonprofits who can garner the most votes, popularity is not an accurate measure of an organization's impact or for that matter the quality or relevance of its research.)

But link popularity is just one example of potential bias in search results and Google is only one online space for us to consider and challenge. As nonprofits it's worth our time to think about other ways that our knowledge or the information we want to share might get left out of search engine results and other data mining projects. Is our knowledge and information tagged with the kinds of metadata that make it "ready" for inclusion? Is our research licensed in ways that allow it to be included in the growing number of search functions that return only openly licensed content? In what other ways might information from smaller nonprofits or information on more marginalized subject areas get excluded?

These may all be examples of what my friend and colleague Anne Elizabeth Moore calls accidental censorship, when information is disappeared almost without intention because of how fields of information or knowledge are organized and how access to that information is institutionalized. (Just in case you wanted something else to keep you up at night ;) We can have debates about exactly how "accidental" this kind of censorship is, but in the end, search neutrality will depend on some kind of intentional intervention by those of us who know that search results do not adequately represent all the information that is out there. They are a good start but they are simply not neutral.

Maybe the solution is something along the lines of the kind of legislation Raff calls for, maybe it's about making sure our information is more "ready" to be included and accessed, or maybe it's about making the extra effort to complement search engines with other kinds of information filters such as relying on our peers and trusted librarians. Whatever the solution is, I guess I just want to make sure that we at least take the time to recognize and discuss the problem.


  1. The only solution for non-profits is to be as 'search savvy' as possible. There are loads of free resources on search engines, optimization of webpages, web marketing etc...

    The price that has to be paid for the opportunity to reach a vast audience is that one has to learn how to reach that audience, and keep up with new trends in that regard.

    That said, I think its a price well worth giving for the opportunities it presents to non-profits, particularly those who may otherwise be lesser known.

    Just as in the for profit field, the internet has levelled the playing field. Its not about how much advertising or marketing dollars you have, its about finding the best ways to get your message out there.

    ( http://non-profitplace.com )

  2. Thanks for your comment PJ.

    As much as I agree that nonprofits need to be internet savvy and only benefit from learning skills like search engine optimization, I would still argue that disparities in organizational capacity speak to the fact that the playing field is not level. Many nonprofits already have staff wearing so many hats and are stretching resources so thin that SEO is very very low on their list of to-do's.

    I am suggesting that we at least recognize that when we talk about whether search results are neutral.

    Finally, as long as link popularity is a determinant in whether your web site shows up in search results, even those small organizations (or niche issue organizations) who have tech savvy staff still can't compete with the brand recognition or broad appeal of larger organizations.

    Sure, those are some of the realities of how marketing (on or offline) works, but I just think as consumers of information we should be more aware of how and why the information we get is included or excluded from search results and not assume that what we see represents everything that is out there.


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