Aussie Researchers Investigate Whether Your Google Search Results Are Manipulated

Aussie Researchers Investigate Whether Your Google Search Results Are Manipulated
Getty/Bill Hinton

A new Federal Government-funded research project aims to find out whether search engines are giving you personalised search results.

The Australian Search Experience is a new project helmed by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (or ADMS for short). It’s based on a similar project led by the German non-profit organisation AlgorithmWatch in 2017.

Essentially, it searches set keywords via a browser plugin on your computer and compares your search results with other pariticipants’ results to see whether search engines like Google Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge are personalising what shows up in your search results.

It comes after a study found that YouTube’s algorithm was more likely to recommend videos flagged with misinformation than ones users actively searched for.

“There is a lot of speculation about the impact that search engines have on the information we encounter. In fact, we know very little about how they order and display information,” organisers of the research project said on its website.

“But search engines are so central to our daily lives that we need a way to independently assess the information they recommend.”

So, how does it work?

The Australian Search Experience uses a browser plugin that queries a number of leading search engines with a set of search terms up to six times a day (roughly every four hours).

These search engine queries include set keywords like names of leading politicians and major celebrities, and varied keywords depending on current events—like information regarding COVID-19. The plugin will only run when your computer is on and the browser it’s installed in is running.

When installing the plugin, it will ask you a handful of basic demographic questions—your age range, gender, and overall location—to identify whether different demographic groups see different search results.

The plugin will continue to run search queries until you either manually disable it on your browser, or until ADMS deactivates it at the end of this project on the 30th of June 2022.

Is it safe?

ADMS stresses that downloading the plug-in will not give them access to any of your personal data or personal search history, and none of the info provided in the research project will be traced back to you. It has been reviewed and approved by the Queensland University of Technology Human Research Ethics Committee.

When providing demographic information, the research project adds that “you can choose to provide only those details that you are comfortable with.”

Since Beta testing in March 2021, the study has had close to 500 participants and over 162 million search results.

You can learn more about The Australian Search Experience here.