Why Do We Trust Search Engines?

Before writing this blog post, I conducted an informal survey of people with whom I interact regularly, not colleagues or techy people, just your average computer user. All of the people with whom I spoke about this topic—100-percent of them—said they trusted Google. Further, all of them said that they didn’t know why.

Of course, this survey was in no way scientific nor should we assume that the results are generalizable. However, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, 63-percent of people across the globe trust search engines more than traditional media.

Searching

Most of us—particularly those not in the world of SEO—don’t think about search. We don’t think about the process of finding information online. We simply go to the Google (or Yahoo or Bing!) homepage, type our query, and get fed the answer to our question in blazingly fast time. (Read my last post about the speed of search engines.) Within this lack of thought is a staggeringly large process that not only feeds us the information we seek, but also has the potential to bolster our pre-conceived notions about the world, show us only the information which supports our existing opinions, and, heaven forbid, be manipulated to support a third party’s agenda.

While they may strive to do so, Google has never promised to show us the best or most pertinent results. Further, the search giant has no duty or mandate to provide the most up-to-date information. We as the users take it on blind faith that the search results page is accurate, relevant, and mostly unbiased. Think about it…all Google has to do is provide a good enough result to your query and you automatically assume that it’s the best result.

I’m not suggesting that, apart from their well-known personalizations, Google is deliberately manipulating SERPs for one reason or another…but what’s to stop them from doing so if they choose? We, the users, have no way of verifying the results other than performing the same search in other search engines…but why would we trust an alternate search engine?

Advertising

The following is a direct quote from Search Engine Land that illuminates another facet of the overall trust question.

The researchers start with the position that Google isn’t really in the business of running a search engine–rather, it’s an advertising company with its “audience” (searchers) as its primary commodity. Just like TV programming, which is expensive to produce and is given away for free to attract an audience, algorithmic search results serve the same purpose, and are “paid for” by advertisers who value the opportunity to promote their goods and services alongside natural search results.

Taking that into account, why wouldn’t Google subtly manipulate the results page to favor paying advertisers? Overall, the company has no obligation to the person using their free service.

So why do we trust search engines?

If you came to read this article looking for a definitive answer, I’m going to have to disappoint you. I have no idea why we trust search engines. My theory is that we trust them because they give us a “good enough” answer to our questions most of the time; and of those times when the provided answer is incorrect, we may not even be aware that anything is amiss.

Maybe, in light of the recent revelations of fake news articles potentially swaying the result of the US Presidential election, it’s time we apply a more skeptical and critical thought process to the results that are returned via our favorite search engine.

I really want to know, do you trust search engines? Why? Hit me up in the comments…

Jerod Karam

Jerod Karam is Director of Technology at Netvantage Marketing, an online marketing company specializing in SEO, PPC and social media. Jerod consults with internal and external clients on all matters technical and is responsible for most of the technical work and custom online tools the company uses.

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