Problem with Authority

Have we come to rely too much on Google to guide our decisions?

“There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s character—the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from the proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill.” Aristotle

Search Engine Bias

Search engines confer authority to websites, but people intervene. Search results are biased. We search for information about important decisions, but commercial interests influence what we get. Perhaps a better understanding of search engines would improve our lives.

High ranking means authority. Although Google—the most influential search engine–provides some human oversight, its search algorithm automatically ranks websites by analyzing a website’s technical features. At the same time, website owners continually optimize their websites to obtain higher web rankings. Guided by search experiments, website owners manufacture web authority. We trust Google to select credible websites with authority, but true authority reflects living virtues of people, not technical web practices.

Your Money and Your Life

We commonly refer to  Google  to make vital life choices:

  • 51% “very frequently” or “often” for important life decisions.
  • 39% for legal decisions.
  • 46% for medical decisions.
  • 10-13% never use Google for important life decisions.

We spend immense sums online: Google referred about half of the $681 billion  (12.6% of retail) online sales traffic in 2019. Each year online sales increase by about 3.8% per year, and businesses spend about $80 billion on SEO. Huge incentives for SEO.

Google often modifies it its search algorithm–3224 times in 2018–to better estimate the authority of websites. Therefore, SEO technicians constantly modify websites to for high rankings. While Google perfects its search process, self-interested parties manipulate search results with SEO. Does this technical process, influenced by self-interested website owners, reliably guide our lives?

Machine and Man

Let’s compare how Google determines authority with how we assess authority ourselves.

The Google Algorithm evaluates about 200 factors per website to determine authority. The main ones are as follows:

  • Off-page factors–number of links, social mentions, and reviews. The age of the domain, links from older sites, and the diversity of links. Keywords in the domain name.
  • User interaction– user behavior data such as dwell time, click through rate, and repeat traffic.
  • Page-level traits–content authorship, content length, headings, title, and targeted keywords. Various types of pages, including contact page FAQs, about. The absence of web spam.
  • Technical factors–efficient navigation, page loading speed, website security.

We evaluate authority with these considerations:

  • Identify the author to verify institutional affiliation, professional and academic credentials, publishing history. If the author cannot be identified, why? Is the website credible? Look for reviews, citations, discussion board mentions, and the history of the source.
  • What is the purpose and audience of the of the website? Is it to sell something or to inform?   Identify the source. What kind of organization does its domain suffix suggest: .edu, .gov, .org, or .com?
  • What is the author’s motive for writing? Is the author a stakeholder of the website? Is the content current, accurate, and complete?
  • Does the website demonstrate technical skill? Does its style match the website’s purpose?

Google analyzes quantitative technical data, we evaluate qualitative information to establish a website’s authority.

Algorithms Everywhere

In A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence: How Algorithms Are Shaping Our Lives and How We Can Stay in Control, Kartik Hosanagar explains how algorithms and artificial intelligence govern our lives. We unwittingly consume biased content, thinking we are informed by objective information.

Prof. Hosanagar writes “…the biggest cause for concern… is not that algorithms have biases … but that we are more susceptible to biases in algorithms than in humans…we tend to believe that algorithms are predictable and rational.”

Think about a search on Google. We might see less than 0.01% of any search results, because rarely do we even cross page one. The algorithm has decided which pages we look at…they’re making a lot of choices for us…We think we see the recommendations and then we do what we want, but algorithms are actually nudging us…sometimes we become passive about how we use algorithms, and that can have consequences.”

Algorithms save us time. We trust Google’s choice of authority to expedite important decisions, but self-interested parties manipulate search results with SEO. Taking a little time and effort to verify real life authority would help us make better decisions.


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