May 19, 2010
By now, almost everyone has noticed that when you start typing words into the Google search box, it offers a drop-down list of suggestions based on previous queries. Dietram Scheufele and a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to look at Google’s data for nanotechnology-related searches, as well as its search suggestions, from October 2008 to September 2009, and they found something interesting.
As they write in their paper:
When searching Google for information about nanotechnology, citizens are likely to encounter health-related content, either through suggested search terms or through the search results provided by Google. This pattern was pervasive across different areas of application, i.e., even for searches not directly related to health. Several non-health searches had more health-related keywords per link than any other domain when averaged over the time period of our study. …
It is reasonable to assume that search results that frame nanotechnology in a medical context will also be influencing people’s future searches, further reinforcing Google suggestions and website rankings that are at least partially based on previous searches and indexed web pages. This may create a self-reinforcing spiral that cements a link between health and nanotechnology in online news environments, and reduces the complexity and detail of the information that citizens are likely to encounter online.
Over the course of the year, the search terms shifted, with economic-related phrases (with words like “stocks” and “jobs”) moving down and health-related searches (with words like “medicine” and “cancer”) rising toward the top.
It’s hard to know what’s going on behind a search engine, but by August, the researchers say, “nanotechnology in medicine” was the top suggestion when they typed “nanotechnology” into the search box, even though it ranked sixth on the list of most popular nanotechnology search terms. As Dominique Brossard, a life science communication professor who worked on the study, points out in a write-up of the research:
Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google to sort search results, in part, based on how popular particular sites were. For science information, that means that surfers may be offered the most popular results rather than the ones that best represent the current state of the science.