Google – the political economy of search
The increasing connectivity, highly technological environment of 21st century, and the increasing turn to digital sources for information requires a critical assessment of the search process and of Google as the leading and most dominant search engine to date. This critical assessment of search must be contextualized within the history and development of the Internet alongside the development of global capitalism and the rise of search engines as aggregators and disseminators of information (such as Google). This assessment is of great importance due to the fact that more and more users turn to digital forms of information and as such, it is imperative to understand the socio-political forces that affect the search process and its results. A critical approach will lead to a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of how searchers find information online and the factors influencing the search process and search results. More specifically, this analysis will allow us to better understand the relations of power that exist between Google and searchers and hopefully unveil the way Google is shaping search behavior but is also shaped by its users.
“Previous books about Google, focused on the company’s rise and triumph…These books have exposed the inner workings of the company, its bold technologies, its brilliant methods of generating revenues, the peculiar vision of its founders, the talents of its chief operating officer, and the revolutionary nature of its approach to making sense of the Internet.”
Google aims at providing search results in a very calculated manner regardless of who is searching for it. One example is the “auto fill” feature which completes search terms based on popular queries and tries to predict what the search term is. The auto fill feature is ultimately suggesting what search terms to use when formulating a query, thus implying that individuality in query formulation is redundant (Google Inc., 2012). This is even more exemplified by Google’s latest edition “The Knowledge Graph” (KG). Google’s KG gives users the option to choose from sets of results based on various meanings or interpretations of a query (Miller, 2012). The KG groups similar search terms and relevant information to the search query through acquired knowledge of what other people were searching for. This “common base of knowledge” that Google attempts to build is simply directing the searcher to popular search results (Miller, 2012). As well, it attempts to direct the searcher to related topics and subjects through what it calls the “Serendipity Box” (Miller, 2012). It is obvious that these additions may have an effect on searcher behavior but research into the effects of these latest additions, was yet to be done. Google is trying to build a database of “common sense”, focusing more on what you should look for. But why?
Google’s founders believe in the primacy of data. Google’s motto: “don’t be evil”, and its founders’ belief in the power of technology and information to transform culture and society should be critically analyzed (Vaidhyanathan, 2011). Google’s founders believe that information should be accessible to everyone. Information should be free from any political or economic constraints. Google believes in the purity of its algorithms and refrains from any action that would modify or alter the search results (Levy, 2011). These are the foundations on which Google’s founders have built their empire. But are these foundations real? Does Google in fact adhere to these pre-conceived notions? Or are they a form of control or false consciousness that is being imposed upon us? Google’s vision of the democratization of the Internet is manifested in this form: the users create, judge, and rate the content they then see as their search results. Google’s ideology to focus on its users (Levy,2011) alongside its founders visions of changing the world and reshaping civilization (Edwards, 2011) based on the premise that the user is the focus, all together have shaped Google’s political and economic influences. Google is shaping our view of the world through search results. But it does so with an agenda.
On Google’s mission statement page it states: “Google search works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting links on websites to help determine which other sites offer content of value” (Google Inc.). This “content of value” is analogous to search results. Whatever website shows up higher in Google’s search results is considered “content of value”. This is a very simplistic view of Google’s algorithm also known as Page Rank. By doing so Google aims at providing searchers with websites that other Internet users have labeled as possessing “content of value”. In other words, Google aims at leveling the playing field, or as Gleick (2011) states “organize the world’s information” (which is also Google’s mission statement), by showing what is considered “common” search results and “common” keywords; can also be considered popular searches. The higher a web site is located in the search results the more valuable it is. The page’s value is a product of both the ‘quality’ of the content and relevancy to the search term. This value, according to Pasquinelli (2009) is a commodity. The value of this search commodity is produced mainly by a condensation of attention and collective desire driven by mass media and advertisements (Pasquinelli, 2009). This is what Pasquinelli (2009) terms as ‘Attention Economy’ to describe how much attention an object receives online and thus determines its value. This Attention Economy has a definite effect on search results, as will be seen later with Google’s Knowledge Graph as well as its Page Rank algorithm. The fundamental concept here is that not only do the searchers and Internet users themselves are the resources from which Google gets its power but how Google uses this knowledge to commodify this basic task of searching. Through search Google is able to collect information on its users, sell it to advertisers, and ultimately influence the search process itself. A study conducted in 2007 found out that 3% of search advertisers dominate Google’s Adwords platform (Stokes, 2008). This raises concerns regarding Google’s claims of the impartiality of their search algorithm (Levy, 2011).
The fundamental purpose of commercial search engines is to deliver customers to websites (Clyde, 2000). The core skills that a good SEO company or professional has to possess is the “understanding of how people search, how to place sites in areas where people are searching and how to target those sites toward particular terms that makes sense for the client”(Greenberg, 2000). Coupled with the creation of a “common knowledge” search suggestion, based on searcher behavior these socio-political and economic factors should be analyzed to see if they too have an effect on searcher typology and consequently on search results. It is evident that Google’s search results are influenced by many factors but the question is: do these factors also influence cognitive search behavior in searchers? Here we have the ultimate connection between what appears to be distinct areas of study. The one has to do with understanding search behavior, while the other has to do with influencing search results so they would correspond to relevant search queries. Search behavior is mediated by technological advancements such as Google’s Page Rank, its latest addition the “Knowledge Graph”, and SEO companies, all working towards influencing search results and the search process.
Two main themes arise from the literature pertaining to the act of searching. The first theme focuses on the searcher’s cognitive behavior and processes, and aims at exploring how people search for information online. The second theme focuses on search engines, namely Google, and their impact on social, political, and economic climate. In addition to these two themes, an important sub-theme claims that theoretical frameworks such as autonomous Marxism, and Hyper and Post Marxist schools of thought have been said to mistreat or completely disregard the effects of the Internet on social-political movements and class struggles and thus need to be revisited in order to answer these new and emerging technological changes (Dyer-Witheford, 2007).
Between studies focusing on agency (the first theme), to studies focusing on the search engine’s increasing influence and reach (the second theme), to political-economy of communication technologies (third theme) a void remains. These areas are connected and inter-related but none acknowledges the effect of the others. In order to provide a more holistic view of this complex process of search, a political-economic analysis must be presented. Pasquinelli (2009) calls for a political-economic analysis of Google’s algorithm and its use, something that is evidently missing from academic literature to date. More generally Dyer-Witheford (2007), speaking of the effects of the Internet on class formation and struggle, calls for a synthesis of autonomous and radical Marxism for the 21st century.
My aim here is to bring the political-economic framework into the foreground and use it to analyze the socio-political and economic processes that affect the search process and behavior of searchers. By taking a political-economic approach, this critical analysis of search will allow for a fundamental understanding of the socio-political and economic processes leading to the development of search engines such as Google, their effect on the search process, and the way users play an active role in the shaping of these technologies and are consequently shaped by these same technologies. A political-economic analysis of search will additionally help us to understand how profit driven institutions such as Google, under the banner of free and accessible information, render individuality in search obsolete by popularizing search queries and results, shape search results based on economic and political considerations, and ultimately shape user’s attitudes and thoughts regarding the search process.
I am not going to present a political-economic analysis of Google in this post. This will be the focus of my future work. However I would like us to be more critical about Google and the way we use it; just as Siva Vaidhyanathan is urging his readers. There is more than meets the eye with Google. Looking only on its effects on the socio-political climate or raising concerns about its impact on the way we view the world is only part of the puzzle. There are other factors that are in play, and majority of them are transparent or taken for granted.