The Political Economy of Internet Search Engines

This article by Elizabeth Van Couvering, from the London School of Economics, is now four years old and thus allows to put in perspective the evolution of web search engines, which have become key players of the information society. She makes a few interesting points:

  1. The author classifies search engines as media, saying that their business model is very similar to that traditional media of mass communication such as television or newspapers. They too provide content (searches), trying to attract the widest audience – or traffic – in order to place advertising, which constitutes a major share of their revenues.
  2. Then she analyzes the rise of one innovative feature of search engines compared to traditional media, namely search-related ads, which are revolutionizing the advertisement industry. Behavioral targeted ads have now taken much bigger proportions and are not limited to web searches anymore (with now a whole variety of data mining methods). This innovation has boosted internet advertising  (+25% in 2007) and is eventually destabilizing traditional media, since advertisers tend to transfer their budgets online.
  3. Finally, the article examines how the “objectivity” of search algorithms is being tricked by search spamming, and discusses the incidence of other defects embedded in search engines on the public sphere. Indeed search engines are the gatekeepers of the web and it is therefore crucial that they don’t bypass part of it. The Chinese version of Google for instance doesn’t provide users with satisfactory results with respect to democratic standards. For that reason the relevance of searches, even though its definition is relative, should represent a key point of the debate on search engines.

However, four years later the public debate about Google and the like tends to be less focused on their ability to provide users with inclusive index and comprehensive searches. Today, the major issue search providers face is that of privacy and it is the field where regulatory attempts are the most perceptible.
Does that mean we are now totally satisfied with ability of search engines to come up with unbiased content, that is to say to genuinely reflect what is going on the web?

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