The Omniscient Search Engine is Flawed

While search engines are more powerful than ever, they are still just as susceptible to bias.

Leo Coughenour, Variety Editor

Hi everyone.

I’m Leo, the guy who makes the puzzle page every week. I don’t like speaking out or sharing my opinions, but I feel that we need to talk about a really big problem. In our issue published on   March 2, I had made a wordsearch named “Influential Scientists You’ve Never Heard of,” highlighting female identifying scientists. When looking up “unknown female scientists” on Google, I noticed that the top ten results displayed a total of 108 women, but only 13 of the people listed were women of color. Four of the 13 were the same person.

But wait– how could Google, the 85.55% market share holder in the search engine market, let something like that happen? Well, when Google recommends you a website it mostly looks at two things: HTTPS (that thing that starts almost every URL), and keywords. I won’t go into too much detail about HTTPS, but that’s basically proof of connection security. Keywords are when you look up words like “dream” and either get a Minecraft YouTuber, or websites about what your dreams may mean. Whatever shows up for each keyword depends on what other people who looked up the same word clicked on. The more clicks a URL gets, the higher it goes on the Google results page.

The point of explaining how Google works is so it’s easier to understand how implicit bias affects your search results. If there’s a large enough group of people with the same biases, that can drastically change what you see from Google. In my case, most people looking up “unknown female scientists” clicked on articles featuring white women, possibly without realizing that there was a bias at all. 

Being aware of your sources and watching for biases is important in gaining impartial information. Google isn’t made to detect bias for you and you can’t rely on it as an unbiased tool. I ask that you please keep in mind that just because something is the top result on Google or is a known name, does not exempt them from being able to include unconscious biases in publications. Biases are unavoidable no matter what search engine you use, and being able to catch them is an important skill to have.