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Algorithmic Bias & Search Systems

This resource explores how bias becomes embedded in algorithms and search systems and offers ways to counteract the negative effects of algorthimic bias.

Algorithmic Bias & Search Systems (Google and More)

  • Algorithm: 2. Mathematics and Computing. “A procedure or set of rules used in calculation and problem-solving; (in later use spec.) a precisely defined set of mathematical or logical operations for the performance of a particular task.” - Oxford English Dictionary Third Edition (September 2012)
  • Algorithmic bias: “systematic and repeatable errors in a computer system that create unfair outcomes, such as privileging one arbitrary group of users over others” - Wikipedia

People tend to think of technology and search engines like Google as neutral and unbiased. But technologies and search engine algorithms reflect larger societal biases.

There are a good number of people who are working actively to minimize and counteract the negative effects of bias in search systems. But this bias is still prevalent. One thing you can do immediately is to increase your awareness of these biases and to develop search and evaluation strategies that work to question those biases. Many digital privacy tools and practices can also help to minimize how much algorithmic bias influences your search result, though there is no easy fix.

This guide will help you get a basic understanding of search systems and bias and how to challenge them. Start with this introductory page and then move on to Search Engines & Societal Biases.

Challenging "Blind Faith" in Big Data

In this TED Talk, "The Era of Blind Faith in Big Data Must End," mathematician Cathy O'Neill discusses how algorithms often make automated decisions that influence people's everyday things in very tangible ways, including who gets a loan, who gets an interview or a pay raise, and even who keeps their job. Blind faith can perpetuate inequities and injustices that result from many of the decisions that are driven by algorithms.

What Is Algorithm Bias?

Search engine algorithms are sequenced formulas that determine the results you see when you search for something. These algorithms are complex: they take into account not only your search terms and the assumed relevance of sources related to those terms, but also things like your past searches, personal preferences, and location; what other people have searched for and clicked on; and in some cases if a company has paid for their results to show up sooner.

This video gives a quick overview of how algorithmic bias can influence what information you get using different online platforms.

Video: Algorithmic Bias Explained (Institute for Public Policy Research)

Critically Evaluating Search Results: Top Tips

Safiya Umoja Noble offers these key tips for how to avoid misleading search results in the video "YouTube Algorithms: How to Avoid the Rabbit Hole" . These tips are useful in any search system:

  • Use specific search terms when looking for content.
  • Watch out for unrelated or outlandish results.
  • Evaluate sources carefully. Who created them? What is their motivation and their expertise? (See the Evaluating Online Sources guide for more.)