Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism

Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Internet and Search and Advertising

Article Snapshot


Eric Goldman


Yale Journal of Law and Technology, Vol. 8, pp. 188-200, 2006


This article acknowledges inherent bias in search engines but argues that it is beneficial and will soon be moot anyway.

Policy Relevance

Search engines do have biases, and this creates a “winner-take-all effect” in some cases, but market forces and emerging personalized search technology lessen this effect. Thus, government regulation is unnecessary.

Main Points

  • Despite claiming to be unbiased because of the automated nature of their operations, there are editorial choices made in the indexing and ranking systems that search engines use to display search results.

    • These choices are made to satisfy their audience, because search engines are media companies.
  • The majority of search engine judgment may be automated, yet manual interventions occur and the algorithms are still designed with the search engine’s goals in mind.
  • Because search engines are not neutral, and the top ranked searches tend to get nearly all the website traffic, some commentators have called for intervention to curb this effect by:

    • increasing search engine transparency by requiring more disclosure;
    • creating government-funded search engines for the public good;
    • mandating changes to how search engines rank results so that obscure websites get more exposure.
  • Search engine bias is unavoidable; media companies must make editorial judgments to organize their content and if they fail to do so they are susceptible to “spammers, fraudsters and malcontents.”
  • Market forces mitigate the negative effects that are created by the unavoidable bias. Searchers' high expectations and ability to shop around create an environment that forces search engines to return quality results.
  • Regulation would be difficult to implement because there is not one correct view that all searchers want. Therefore, regulation would probably be counterproductive and lower the value of search engines to searchers.
  • The negative effects of search engine bias will soon be moot. The move toward personalized search engine algorithms will remove the problems that plague a “one-size-fits-all” algorithm approach.
  • The evolution of search engine algorithms will cause the problems of search engine bias to mostly disappear and therefore the process should take place naturally without government intervention.

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