Have you ever wanted to know the answer to a question, and thought, I’ll “just Google it”?
So you go away and madly punch the query into a big white box, hit return, and then just like that website links and images appear at the top of the search page.
But… what if the answer your search engine gives you isn’t actually THE answer. It’s AN answer?
What I mean by that is, the results are ‘biased’.
A search engine has chosen a piece of information for you, above another piece of information, using a range of factors and inputs to reach a conclusion.
And, that kind of matters. Search results help form our understanding of the world around us. So ideally, we want that information to be as free of bias as possible.
What started my search?
It highlighted how if you search “best tennis players” or “who is the number one tennis player”, the results that Google shows you are mostly men.
And that’s important - it creates this idea that sport is more something for men than for women.
Turns out the bias doesn’t just apply to tennis. Here’s what I found:
So… how does search work?
Now, I am no techie… so I needed someone to chat it through with me.
Alpha and I went to the Google offices in central London, to speak to the Vice President of Search at Google, Pandu Nayak.
Pandu told me that the best way to think of a search engine is like the index at the back of a book.
But with a bit of a difference. It’s much, MUCH bigger. There’s trillions of pages on the web. And it’s more complicated too. 15% of Google searches are new every single day.
Humans can’t process the information fast enough, so they need to use these things called ‘algorithms’ - bits of computer code that sift through all the information.
And, the higher the score, the higher the result will appear on a webpage. And that’s what appears at the top of your Google search results.
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So… why the ‘bias’?
So if that’s how search works, why is there this thing called ‘search bias’?
A search engine selects a piece of information for you, based on loads of different factors that influence what you get. And these factors favour some results over others, we’re talking about things like location.
Jahna Otterbacher is an expert in gender search bias and algorithms, who can put it in better words than me.
So by seeing over 90% males in the Google image results, for most sports stars and other jobs, there’s a clear difference from what you would expect as a baseline.
Pandu Nayak told me that there’s no silver bullet answer to search bias. But they’re working on a few things.
For example, Google has been looking at ways to address the imbalance of male to female sports coverage when you search online.
Pandu also highlighted that bias appears in Google searches because of human inputs.
“It’s not like these algorithms are making any value judgements here. They are very much dependent on the content that’s out there. And the content that’s out there is informed by societal biases”
What it all means*
(*without getting too deep)
The search results we see online matter, because they affect how we see the world.
So what more can be done?
Jahna believes a lot of it will have to do with getting people involved in the oversight of the search process.
This is something Google is working on, using ‘Search Quality Raters’ stationed around the world. They provide human feedback on the search process.
But I had a little look here, at the Google Search Help centre, and it seems these Raters don’t have any direct influence on how the results are ranked. And ranking is a big part of the search bias issue.
And why not give it a go for yourself? Type in a few search queries and let us know what you spot. As always, we’re all ears!