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      Does Google shape what we know?

      Pluto Journals


            While much has been written about the technological, economic and regulatory aspects of search engines, their impact on everyday life has been largely overlooked. This essay argues that this is mainly because the role of information and knowledge has been poorly theorized in the social sciences in terms of how search engines are actually used. One way to make a start on this topic is to bring to bear two theoretical frameworks from the social study of technology – large technological systems and the domestication of technology. These allow us to see how search engines have become an infrastructure at a time when, on the one hand, the uses of the Internet as a system have become pervasive and, on the other, information seeking in the home has become a routine activity in everyday life. Several studies of search behaviour have identified the main patterns of search. What emerges is the dominant role played by Google, and that the vast majority of searches are related to leisure. The paper asks whether Google plays a gatekeeping function, and how it shapes the information we use in everyday life.


            Author and article information

            Pluto Journals
            1 June 2014
            : 32
            : 2 ( doiID: 10.1080/prometheus.32.issue-2 )
            : 145-160
            Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
            © 2014 Pluto Journals

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            Computer science,Arts,Social & Behavioral Sciences,Law,History,Economics


            1. Haddon (2004) discusses whether the domestication of technology should be labelled a framework or a theory, and opts for the former.

            2. See http://insidesearch.blogspot.co.uk/ [accessed April 2012].

            3. See http://worldinternetproject.com/_files/_Published/_oldis/917_2012_wip_report_third.pdf [accessed April 2012].

            4. The authors use the Yahoo! search engine for the US because Google allows analysis only with its Google Zeitgeist tool (http://www.googlezeitgeist.com/#en/) for a restricted period for American searches. However, the authors note that there is broad comparability between searches in Google and in Yahoo! We also see here, as in Waller's analysis, the problems of social science relying on commercial digital tools and transactional data (see Savage and Burrows, 2007).

            5. According to Google's annual investor report, http://investor.google.com/pdf/2010_google_annual_report.pdf, 96% of its revenue in 2010 came from advertising.

            6. There is, of course, a connection between organic (non-advertising) and sponsored link (advertising) results, as Yang and Ghose (2010) have shown. Further, search engine optimization also shapes results, organic and sponsored (van Couvering, 2008; Berman and Katona, 2011). Note, however, that Google and other search engines also try to counter efforts at ‘gaming’ their rankings.

            7. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_search_engine#Market_share [accessed January 2014].

            8. See http://www.nbcbayarea.com/blogs/press-here/Schmidt-on-Antitrust-Competition-is-One-Click-Away-130300333.html [accessed April 2012].


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