Techwashing search results

The data presented to us is being techwashed, and real world items are being pushed below the fold.

Last night I wanted to learn more about Rust (the programming language). So I googled “rust” with no context. This brought up the results:

So, yay, Google showed me exactly what I wanted to see. But wait, what if I wanted to learn about “rust” as in the product of natural phenomenon/chemical reaction? Why are my first few results about “rust” related to a programming language and a game?

Maybe it’s just Google, so I tried Bing.

As you can see, slightly better but a programming language and a game show up ranked higher than the natural phenomenon.

This got me thinking, maybe the search engines are displaying tech results higher than natural phenomenon because I’m a techie. So I tried private browsing mode. The result: same, the natural phenomenon is ranked lower than a programming language and a game.

Next step: maybe Google and Bing have somehow figured out I’m a techie on my laptop, so I’ll try in private browsing on my phone.

As you can see, the mobile results are more game focused, forget programming language or natural phenomenon. For instance, Google shows me the game on the entire screen and Bing barely manages to get the natural phenomenon into the results above the fold.

I tried using a different machine I’ve never used – same results as my desktop.

What if I was a young kid wanting to learn about “rust” in nature? Most times the links for the natural phenomenon are way down the page of search results, often not above the fold or sometimes not even on the first page of results.

Now contrast this behavior with this Google commercial where they claim to educate kids, and you start to develop cognitive dissonance.

On one hand, the search giant claims to educate kids about natural phenomenon, while in reality tech-centric results take precedence when a kid actually uses their search engine.

Now you could type in “what is rust” and these search engines actually return the natural phenomenon as the top result. So I can use this approach to direct kids to search for educational results on Google and other search engines, right?

Enter “Amazon”: you can type in “amazon” in any search engine, private browsing or not, or even ask “what is Amazon” and most, if not all, first page results you get, are of the tech giant. In most cases, Amazon (the rainforest) never even shows up on the first page. Amazon (the rainforest) has been around longer and is vital to our survival as a planet and species. But, it’s not a programming language, computer game or a tech giant with dedicated staff to boost pagerank, so it suffers in search results.

I have a decent understanding of how search engine results work and how to boost Pagerank with SEO. Following that chain of thought, it would be a piece of cake to game “what is rust” to display results favoring the programming language, instead of the natural phenomenon.

Consider this (somewhat plausible) scenario:

Kid hears adults talk about some machine parts rusting.
Kid: “Google, what is rust”
Google Home: “Rust is a general purpose programming language sponsored by Mozilla Research. It is designed to be a “safe, concurrent, practical language”, supporting functional and imperative-procedural paradigms. Rust is syntactically similar to C++, but is designed for better memory safety while maintaining performance.”

The example may be a tad extreme, or maybe, not. And what about the creators of these search engines? The best case is someone at Google or Bing realizes this could happen and are working on disambiguation of search results. In the worst case, they designed it this way because tech above all.

This is not the first time I’ve come across a disingenious-disconnected-from-real-world case from a major tech product. But, the part that bothers me most is when I try to discuss this with other techies, it’s usually met with tech-xplanations of why this is happening aka it’s fine, or in some cases, a vicious defense is mounted in favor of these products. We, techies, often get criticized for being too tech-centric in our approach to solving problems. I used to dismiss that as luddites not understanding tech. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for us, techies, to revisit the fact that not everything revolves around tech and to consider the real world implications of our work – and we can begin by not techwashing our products.

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