Do search engines influence you more than you think?

photo of a woman and man looking at a laptop together in the kitchen.

“Privacy is an important part of the project design,” Professor Kimberlee Weatherall says.
Photo: Drazen Zigic/Getty Images. Hero Photo above: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

In 2020, Google processed more than 3.5 billion searches a day – and Forbes Magazine reported most people see search engines as the most trusted source of information. But not all searches produce the same results.

Search engines adjust their recommendations to suit our interests. The big question is how such personalisation can influence our decisions on anything from where to holiday to whether we get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The new Australian Search Experience project aims to find out. It invites Australian Internet users to join the project as citizen scientists by downloading a simple browser plugin to their computer.

The plugin runs regular searches for common search terms and reports the results back to the research project. Across thousands of participants, individual data donations will produce a comprehensive picture of what search results different Australians encounter. The plugin won’t transmit participants’ private data at any time.

Photo of Professor Kimberlee Weatherall. Credit: Maja Baska

Professor Kimberlee Weatherall. Credit: Maja Baska 

The project is a partnership between researchers from Australian universities within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making + Society (ADM+S) and the international research and advocacy organisation AlgorithmWatch.

ADM+S Chief investigator Professor Kimberlee Weatherall, a researcher in IP & Tech law from Sydney Law School, said the project explores whether search engines have the potential to create ‘filter bubbles’ or to promote misinformation and disinformation.

“Digital platforms use automated decision-making systems to order and shape the content we see online,” Professor Weatherall said. “How they do so is largely invisible – by definition, since everyone sees something different, for all kinds of reasons. With people’s help, the ADM+S Centre can independently assess how search engines shape the flow of information and public discourse. The team is going to investigate this question rigorously, and release results to the public regularly.”

The project is led by chief investigator Professor Axel Bruns, an internationally renowned Internet researcher in QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre. He said there is a lot of speculation about the impact search engines have on the information we encounter. “But we really know very little about how they order and display that information,” said Professor Bruns, whose most recent book is Are Filter Bubbles Real?

“Search engine personalisation may be influencing your search results and consequently shaping what you know of the world. This can affect personal decisions as well as society’s collective decisions– from how we spend our money to who we vote for, and to our attitudes on critical issues like the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

“If you wonder why your search results may differ from those of a friend, colleague or family member, we’d like you to participate in this project.

To become a citizen scientist contributing to the project, users need to install the browser plugin on their computer.

“Privacy is an important part of the project design,” said Professor Weatherall, who researches law relating to the collection, ownership, use and governance of data about, and related to, people. “Participants will be asked for some basic demographic details, but nothing that can be used to re-identify individuals. The plugin does not capture any private data. And the searches will all happen in the background, minimising disruption to users.”

Declaration: The Australian Search Experience project is part of the ARC Centre of Excellence on Automated Decision-Making and Society. It is funded through the Australian Research Council.

Visit the Automated Decision-Making and Society website for more information, and to join the project.