Monday, May 9, 2011

Google Suggest and public discourse

I recently ran across an interesting article about how Google starts dictating public discourse before the search button ever gets hit.

Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published the findings of a study involving the Google Suggest feature, which automatically fills in the search field based on what Google things you want to search for (or perhaps what they want you to search for).

Their research focused on searches involving nanotechnology. They found that, over time, Google Suggest steered those looking for information about nanotechnology toward articles about health-related research and away from other scientific and social applications that are more common (USA Today did a good job of explaining the scientific stuff in easy-to-understand terms).

The bottom line: Google is overemphasizing the role nanotechnology plays in health research.

Wisconsin communications expert Dietram Scheufele, one of the co-authors of the study, told USA Today that Google "is shaping the reality we experience in the suggestions that it makes, pointing us away from the most accurate information and toward the most popular." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

"I don't think Google is making us 'stupid' but we do see the potential for a self-reinforcing spiral in search suggestions away from the most accurate information toward the most popular," Scheufele later told USA Today. "The whole idea in science is to look at a lot of sources of information and form a comprehensive picture of the situation, not to any one 'best' paper."

The authors of the study speculated that the problems they found would translate to other topics, like politics. Makes sense to me - what do you think?

Here are the first few paragraphs of a news release explaining the Wisconsin study:


MADISON - By adding a subtle nudge to each of more than 1 billion search requests every day, Google may be steering the direction of public discussion.

Begin typing a word in the search box at, and the Google Suggest feature starts kicking in ideas - "tiger" begets "tiger woods," "tea" draws "tea party movement" and "craig" will summon "craigslist."

"It is meant to be helpful, but from a public discourse perspective it is worrisome," says Dominique Brossard, a University of Wisconsin-Madison life science communication professor.

Brossard and four colleagues studied Google's data for nanotechnology-related search terms and the associated Google suggestions from October 2008 to September 2009.

In a study published in the May issue of Materials Today, the researchers found a reversal in the top 10 nano search terms, with economic impact (word such as "stocks," "jobs" and "companies") searches giving way to health ("medicine" and "cancer") searches over the course of a year.

By the time August 2009 arrived, users who typed "nanotechnology" into the Google search box were getting a list of suggestions topped by "nanotechnology in medicine" despite the phrase's standing as the sixth-most popular nano search term.

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