Search engine companies such as Google have claimed that such SEME is not possible, and they seek to operate with transparency for the processes that inform their search engine algorithms. The chances are high that search engine companies do their best to operate in a fair and transparent manner. Nevertheless, this doesn’t preclude or eliminate the possibility that a company might engage in SEME. As Forrest Gump might theologize, “Sinners are as sinners do.” In other words, in a fallen world we should never put our absolute and unswerving trust in any organization.
Every day millions of people use internet search engines for business, research, entertainment, and other various tasks. Many likely use search engines the way they would use a dictionary or, in days gone by, a phone book. The assumption might be that the search engine is value neutral: you plug in search terms and your desired query pops up with your results. But we should recognize that few things in life are truly value neutral. Software programmers have made decisions on how search engines work, and they have made value judgments about how the search engine should function. There are several different ways their value judgments appear in the seemingly innocuous use of a search engine.
I used to work for a Christian nonprofit organization that strategized how our institution could come up on the first page of a search (i.e., search engine optimization). One of the ways to do this was to ensure certain key words were embedded in our web pages so that, if those words were searched for, our web site would have a greater chance of appearing on the first page of a search. This was the low-cost option. The higher-cost option was to pay for our organization to appear first. We decided to budget a certain amount of money to use ad words to boost our odds of coming up on the first search results page. When you search for “books,” for example, why do Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million appear on the first page of the seventeen billion-plus results that come up? This is largely because they have paid the search engine company. Like placing a large phone book advertisement that catches your eye when flipping through its pages, companies spend money to ensure that their business comes up early in your search.