It’s a well-known fact that people are spending increasing amounts of time online. Who doesn’t rely on Google to search for anything and everything, the best, the worst and answers to the unknown?
Google searches happen 63,000 times per second – that’s 5.5bn searches each day. Our use of the Internet has become more sophisticated in terms of technical capabilities and mobile technology. Yet, the one constant is our reliance on this search engine to find information we don’t know.
Last year’s top trending searches tell us that in the UK people searched in droves for information about high-profile celebrities following their deaths, as well as news of the major political events (think Brexit, campaign trails and election fever). Not forgetting the viral phenomenon that was Pokémon Go.
To the rescue
Regardless of how diverse the topic is, Google is our rescue whenever we’re curious, intrigued or outright bewildered.
Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary define ‘google’ as a verb, not a noun. It means to ‘search for information about someone or something’. The success of the search engine is clear, as learned scholars of language officially recognise it. It also conveys the often unquestioned validity Google embodies.
However, it is this unquestioned element that’s now being, well, questioned. There is disquiet in both online and offline communities as more people ask (why shouldn’t they?) can we really trust Google?
For example, take last year’s race to the White House in the US election. There was much online commentary about ‘fake news’ influencing unsuspecting people all over the Internet. You may recall Facebook taking its share of flak for not policing its site more rigidly in relation to this. Likewise, mainstream media has been heavily criticised for disproportionately covering stories which favour sensationalised, click-driving news coverage rather than the (often) blander truths of everyday news.
On Google’s search results, The Observer published a still darker account last December. They showed how the search engine was being influenced by tech-savvy political groups aiming to sway the algorithm to favour their own extremist agenda.
Between them, the articles had over 100,000 shares. People responded in outrage that Google could ‘allow’ such a thing to happen. Let alone ignore it once the company had awareness of the situation.
These stories gained such significant traction that – in a rare move – Google experienced public pressure to amend its algorithm. It now offers searchers more neutral and factual results through its auto-suggest function.
Dealing with Google
However, it’s not just historical fact and compassion among humanity which has raised eyebrows at Google recently. In an article this month for the Daily Mail, Dame Esther Rantzen wrote her personal account about the difficulties in deleting links from Google.
As a veteran activist and campaigner for the rights of society’s most vulnerable, Rantzen faced trolling by unknown individuals. They not only slandered her character, but put children’s helpline service, Childline, in jeopardy by illegally defaming her, its founder.
The articles questioned the integrity of both Rantzen and Childline. This prompted her to request Google removed their links from its search results. Google refused to remove the articles, twice.
The Daily Mail, perhaps the world’s largest, most powerful and influential topical news websites, contacted the search engine. After this, the firm then agreed to remove the offending articles. However, as Rantzen notes, the average person cannot use the power of a multi-national media conglomerate as leverage against Google to remove content. Even when such content is illogical, entirely false and illegal.
Google grows ever bigger and expands into new areas, further extending its reach. It will be interesting to follow how it responds to its responsibility as a globally relied upon source of information.
Much like Facebook, Google is experiencing pressure to better regulate its service and become more responsible. As the Leveson Report comments on how the UK media should be regulated independently, the question how to monitor, regulate and enforce any kind of universal action for a colossus such as Google very much remains to be seen.
Until there is a credible alternative though, the world’s reliance on Google is very unlikely to change. Considering this, it’s worth being mindful that Google, as a business, has its own commercial agenda impacting your search results. As may the agendas of technically skilled individuals who are also able to manipulate it.