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Digital Citizens, Friday, January 23, 2015

Aside from checking our email, searching the Internet is something most of us do multiple times a day. Regardless of what search engine you use, there are some things you should know about all of them.

How Search Engines Work

Each Internet search engine works differently, but all perform three basic tasks.

  1. They search the Internet based on important keywords.
  2. They “keep an index of the words they find and where they find them.”
  3. They allow users to search for specific words or phrases found in the index they build.

Generally, a specific search engine builds this index based on its unique system of weighting (i.e., determining which search results are most relevant). To find the information used to build this index, “a search engine employs special software robots, called spiders, to build lists of the words found on websites. This process is known as “Web crawling.”

Determining What You Can (and Can’t) See

Internet search engines don’t just crawl the Web and index sites—they also determine which sites users see (and the order in which they appear) in their search results. While companies use slightly different criteria for determining search results, there are a few factors that they all look at:

  • How long a webpage has existed
  • How often the keyword appears in a webpage
  • How many other websites link back to the webpage

Generally speaking, it’s the last one that’s the most important. The more pages out there that link to a specific site, the greater the chance of that site being among the top search results.

Tracking Your Online Activities

Nearly all the major search engines “track your search history and build profiles on you, serving different results based on your search history.” Generally, this helps search engines determine what content you would find most relevant.

Tracking your searches online also enables search engines to deliver micro-targeted ads to you based on what you’ve looked for online in the past. If you’ve ever searched for something online—say a specific clothing line—you might notice ads for that product appear on other sites you visit. That’s a direct result of your search engine tracking your movements online.

No one can deny the convenience of search engines. Without them, it would be impossible to navigate the hundreds of millions of websites out there. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that these are businesses with a financial stake—through the advertising they sell—in shaping our online experience—and they know more about our daily lives than most people think.

There’s an old saying that with great power comes great responsibility. Search engines’ reach into our individual lives makes them more than just benign tools. They have tremendous power to manipulate our online experience. Digital Citizens believes that’s a power they must use responsibly and proactively for good. Some of our past reports have looked at the connection between online advertising and criminal or other bad actors online. This is an area we will continue to investigate to help ensure our supporters and all Internet users can enjoy the Internet safely.

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