The key role of search engines in finding information on the web

The key role of search engines in finding information on the web

The search engine Google has existed for over 17 years . Within a few years, “Googling” has advanced to become a global cultural technique and has dramatically changed the way we deal with knowledge.

Because search engine operators like Google enable and design access to information on the Internet. As orientation and navigation aids, they open up the variety of content on the Internet to users. They make information accessible online and thus the network can be used as a limitless information portal in everyday life.

This allows them to determine which information can be found on the network and which cannot. But that also means that network content that cannot be found by search engines does not exist for the majority of users.

The example of Google shows very clearly what risks naive trust in navigation aids can harbor for society and the individual citizen: Google accounts for 95 percent of all search queries in Germany. Well over five billion search queries are made to Google every day, and over a hundred billion a month. Hardly any other company has taken up as much space in daily life as Google. Almost all users online rely on the relevance assignments made by Google based on ranking.

What does this monopoly of power from Google mean for users? Google is funded through advertising. In order to market these in a targeted manner and to be able to retain users even more firmly, the company works with personalized search results: Stored data about previous searches become the basis for the individualized tailoring of future hit lists. The question is repeatedly raised as to whether the so-called personalization of the search influences the perception of topics and thus the formation of opinions.

A current, interdisciplinary research project examines how people deal with search engines and how well they are aware of the problems mentioned above (Stark / Dörr & Aufenanger 2014). On the basis of a user survey, the competence of the users in dealing with search engines is analyzed.

The results show that internet users have a consistently uncritical, naive image of Google as a company, which is also reflected in the use of the search engine. In everyday use, many blindly trust the selection and ranking decisions without critically evaluating or questioning them. The automatic suggestions when entering search terms are particularly influential. Although the majority of those surveyed rate their own competence in dealing with search engines as good, a knowledge quiz reveals that the broad masses only have a rudimentary knowledge of how Google works – certainly due to the fact that very few people are interested at all. The transfer of data is also assessed as contradicting: On the one hand, many respondents explicitly reject the storage of their data, but on the other hand they find the resultant, tailored search results to be welcomed. In addition, Google’s quasi-monopoly recognizes too great a potential for power, but at the same time it is acknowledged that this is justified by the “best offer”.

The authors of the study conclude that knowledge of how search engines work and awareness of possible risks must be sharpened. Therefore, media education measures should focus on educating users. In order to guarantee access to the diversity of information, search engine providers must be made more accountable – for example by obliging them to make their technical procedures (especially the default settings) more transparent and to inform users of associated problems or to give them explicit choices (especially with the personalized versus generalized search).

In addition, it doesn’t always have to be Google, because there are alternatives. For example, the French-based search engine “Qwant” advertises more data protection because it pays particular attention to the privacy of its users and does not save data on their search behavior. Smaller search engines such as “DuckDuckGo” or “Ixquick” also offer options.


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