If I search for the above phrase – ‘How Do We Search?’ from my home computer in Amsterdam, the Google results differ significantly from those received on my work PC in Bergen. Since many digital-humanities scholars rely on search tools in their research, it is of titanic importance that they are aware of that difference — and, more broadly, of the techniques that Google (as well as Facebook, Twitter, and many other Web 2.0 services) uses to filter out those results that it thinks you want to see. We have discussed the problem of unreliable search results repeatedly within the Future of Russian team, and it is a relief to see that the issue is being addressed more and more by shrewd voices in the field. Some recommended ‘sensitivizers’:

* In 2006, Amy Langville and Carl Meyer already published a booklength study of “the science of search-engine rankings,” titled Google’s PageRank and Beyond (Princeton University Press). A bit on the hardcore mathematical side for the linguists among us, perhaps, but worth a peep in any case.

* In 2007, a special section edited by Eszter Hargittai in the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication explored how “search engines are also embedded in social processes and institutions that influence how they function and how they are used” — the quote comes from the section introduction. As all JCMC issues, the entire section is available online for free.

*  And this Spring, Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (Penguin/Viking Adult 2011) is raising a lot of dust for its critical evaluation of personalized search tools. The book cannot yet be ordered online, but you can grasp the gist of Pariser’s argument perfectly by watching this short TED video. In his own words, this is how search engines work and why they require a sceptic approach:

“Most personalized filters are based on a three-step model. First, you figure out who people are and what they like. Then, you provide them with content and services that best fit them. Finally, you tun [sic] to get the fit just right. Your identity shapes your media. There’s just one flaw in this logic: Media also shape identity. And as a result, these services may end up creating a good fit between you and your media by changing … you. If a self-fulfilling prophecy is a false definition of the world that through one’s actions becomes true, we’re now on the verge of self-fulfilling identities, in which the Internet’s distorted picture of us becomes who we really are.”

Pariser’s tone is popular, Hargittai’s and that of her co-authors is more scholarly, and Langville and Meyer adopt, as said, a downright mathematical approach to search theory. Together, they may not solve the problems that digital searches entail, but they certainly help us in developing a healthy scholarly scepsis towards Google and other online search tools.