Global Village Idiot: What search engine algorithms get right, and wrong, about your queries
The other day I wanted to read what UK newspapers had to say about the India-England Test match. I asked Google, and then asked again, and guess what? The first couple of pages of search results gave me links to Indian media reports. I modified the search to include “UK media” and then I got a few relevant links.
Every day I read three English-language national newspapers (physical copy). I also read a Marathi daily and scan a financial paper online. So one could say I get a reasonably well-rounded national and regional perspective on news. When there is a need for a global perspective, I search online for international media opinions - in this case, the UK media since it was a Test match with England.
The sports channel coverage already offers me international cricketing perspectives - it is fantastic to listen to Sunil Gavaskar, Shaun Pollock, Michael Holding, Sanjay Manjrekar and Harsha Bhogle.
But, I didn’t get the search results I wanted till I specifically searched for UK newspapers by name. I started wondering if Google has decided that I should read news only from the Indian media.
Which would mean I have the dubious benefit of not having access to the world on my phone while living in an era where technology can provide me access to hundreds of global media links every second.
I changed my default search engine to Yahoo and: the first page was full of links to Yahoo News and Yahoo Cricket News. No real media in the top search results!
When I changed the query to include “UK media” it finally gave me some relevant links. Bing as a default engine delivered similar results to Yahoo.
So I went back to Google and tried the exercise with other queries. Giant Panda. Lasagna. Biryani. Dubai Biryani. English Premier League. Giant Panda and Lasagna aside, it was a frustrating exercise. (Earlier this week, I searched for Afghanistan since the situation there rapidly evolved, and I got links to India-based media, although what I wanted was reports from Afghanistan).
So when it comes to news, search engines seem to prioritise the location’s media and among them there seems to be some sort of further prioritisation.
If I want to read info and stats and match reports on the English Premier League, I would expect search results to provide links to the English (as in England) media sites. I would not expect links to Indian media; just as I am not expecting links to European or American media opinions if I queried “Indian Hockey”.
The source of my aggravation was expertise and plurality/diversity of viewpoints. Why was I suddenly getting local/regional results as a prioritisation?
I queried “Google search results” and then started reading the documentation on search… it’s fascinating and pretty transparent.
To quote a part of Google’s documentation:
“To give you the most useful information, Search algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query — for example, the freshness of the content plays a bigger role in answering queries about current news topics than it does about dictionary definitions.”
Expertise of sources is an important factor, but so is location, which seems to take precedence. Why am I investing so much time on reading documentation? Because something has changed in my online search experience and I am not getting access to more than one side of an event. I am reading match reports in local media, but I also want to enjoy Test match reports written by someone who understands Test cricket, knows the players and how to weigh the importance of every innings. Like Mike Atherton, a great cricketer and sports writer. Like Jonathan Liew, a well-decorated sports journalist who has this amazing knack to get into the game. (Liew’s pragmatically ironic buildup of Pujara’s 45 on Day 3 of the second Test was just brilliant).
What I am saying is that I would like reports on UN events from UN sources and European news from European sources and Singapore technology news from Singapore technology sources and so on, in addition to the local view on those reports.
If tech platforms are going to make it difficult for me to get a wider range of results beyond the location, especially for news and information that originates elsewhere, I am in danger of developing a unidimensional perspective to the world based on a diet of non-expert, non-source information.
It also stands to reason then, that elsewhere in the world people from other nations are viewing India and Indian events and Indian news from a similar unidimensional diet of non-Indian sources of information. There is something very wrong with such locational prioritisation of news and information since it widens the abyss between peoples and nations. But that’s for another day.
For now, I am going to enjoy the victory of the Indian cricket team over England in the second Test. What a hard fought and scintillating match!