Book Review of: Search Engine Society – Alexander Halavais

On: September 14, 2009
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About Charlotte Hendriks
Now a Bachelor of Arts, Charlotte has mainly focused on new media throughout her academic career. At the University of Amsterdam she started the Media & Culture BA in 2006 and earned the degree mid 2009. Apart from studying New Media, she also focused on Art History, Philosophy and Science and Technology Studies. This year she is aiming to earn my Master Degree in New Media, also at the University of Amsterdam.

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In his 2009 published book “Search Engine Society”, Alexander Halavais looks at the impact of the phenomenon of search engines in the everyday online lives of Internet-using citizens around the world. Search engines have become a widely used component of the Internet experience. It should be no surprise then, that search engines are part of the academic discourse concerning new media and Internet studies. The studies that have been undertaken usually look at the way search engines, and Google in particular, rank their results. In other words, the anatomy of the search engine is being examined, as well as the way in which the engine works should be improved.

In “Search Engine Society”, Halavais takes a different approach; instead of looking at the search engines themselves, he looks at the effects search engines have on their users and the society these users live in. For a New Media student like myself, this is a very interesting new approach, though it makes one wonder why studies like “Search Engine Society” have not yet been undertaken on this scale.

Halavais’ book starts of with a basic introduction into the world of search engines, which answers essential questions like what a search engine is, and how it works. Since much has already been written on these notions, Halavais keeps his introduction to the point and structured. This makes total sense when an audience has a certain amount of background knowledge when it comes to the subject matter. However, the book also aims to reach an audience with less extensive knowledge of search engines, and might make it difficult for these audiences to keep up with Halavais’ story. For these readers a slightly deeper introduction might have been helpful, though one can cope with the information that is given.

The next chapter considers the search progress. Halavais states that three questions should be asked about the search progress; the first asking how people interact with the search engine they’re using (i.e. what they type in the query box and what they do with the result page), second why people search at all, and finally asking if people search differently because of the existence of search engines. The first question is answered with the notion of what Halavais calls search engine literacy: the way in which users have become used to search engines and how they have learned to search in such a way that they get the results they asked for. Using search engines requires skill, which is something one can develop. The reason why one would search at all is, according to Halavais, because searching has become one of our primary ways to retrieve information. Instead of for instance calling a doctor to diagnose a problem, one might now use a search engine on the Internet. Old ways of finding the knowledge one needs are thus incorporated in the search engine. As for the third question, asking whether people search differently thanks to search engine, the simple answer is yes. As stated above, all kinds of old ways of searching have been incorporated into the search engine, like the health diagnose or any type of academic search. Where one would before undertake different steps for different queries, practically every search nowadays starts with a Google search. Since a search engine offers a far more broad pool of information out of which the necessary information can be retrieved, one selects his or her information differently.

After this Halavais discusses the way search engines organise their results; how one can gain attention on the web by being found by a search engine and how this affects importance on the Internet. In direct relation to this stands the way in which engines use their power to influence the way in which search results are organized. This is a very serious matter, since it makes significant difference whether a result is shown on the first page half, or the second, let alone on the second page. This is not only a matter of business, but also of politics. Search engines ought to be democratic tools, but they sometimes fail in executing this task. Looking at countries like China, where censorship is on the everyday menu, a search engine is enforced by the government to show (and, more importantly, hide) certain results, or the search engine will be blacklisted and cannot be accessed anymore.

This second part of the book is exactly what makes the book fail to score all the points I initially thought it was going to get. The social start of the book is in my opinion extremely exciting, since it reads like nothing that was written before. We indeed should ask questions as to why and how we use search engines and what makes us so eager to believe their results. Search engines have an enormous impact on our lives, but we fail to understand which impact this is exactly. I am therefor a great fan of the first chapters of “Search Engine Society”. However, when it comes to Google and censorship or democracy, I think we already have a lot of thorough studies. Halavais aims to do something entirely different, something we can also read on the cover of his book, and tries to show a different side to the search engine debate. However, the first part of the book is the only thing that’s new, but he does not capitalize on it. Instead, he turns to debating issues on which we’ve read enough already. Though I very much admire the book, and think anyone who wants to know about search engines should read it, it does feel like a missed opportunity to tell the world something new.

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