Good Search Engines, Bad Search Engines? A Comparative Content Analysis on the Diversity and Relevance of Search Results

Search engines have a key position in the Internet: As an information intermediary and one of the main access routes to Internet content, they decide what is findable for the users. This entails the risk that individual information selection is based on the algorithm-based selection process of the search engine rather than on active decisions of the users. A potential danger in this regard is Google, which holds almost a monopoly position with a market share of over 90 percent of all search queries in Germany.

In addition to classic service information (e.g., opening hours or help with everyday problems), search engines have become an increasingly important political information source, particularly in the younger age group. Topics that are currently being discussed in the mass media are often queried via search engines. In this respect, the function of search engines – even though they do not produce content themselves – has now become comparable to that of journalism. In contrast to journalism, however, the companies running the search engines are purely profit-oriented and not obliged to public value (e.g., by providing diverse and relevant content) so far. The demand to make normative demands to search engines is gradually becoming part of media policy considerations. For example, the Bund-Länder Commission on Media Convergence, which was set up in 2015, emphasizes the role of search engines for opinion diversity and makes their regulation one their main topics.

However, empirical studies on the actual performance of search engines are extremely scarce so far. By means of a quantitative content analysis, this study examines how well the search results of five search engines (Google, Bing, Ask, Ixquick and DuckDuckGo) correspond to two normative criteria: Diversity (information and opinion diversity) and social relevance. Both criteria are considered central prerequisites of a well-informed citizenry in studies on journalistic quality. On the basis of hit lists on ten current, controversial political topics, it is examined to what extent the search engines provide the conditions for the citizens’ well-informed political decision-making.

Collaborators

Melanie Magin (NTNU, Trondheim, Norway)
Miriam Steiner (JGU Mainz, Germany)
Birgit Stark (JGU Mainz, Germany)

Funding

Research Unit Media Convergence of JGU Mainz

Project Duration

2016-2017