Halavais — Search Engine Society

Search Engine Society by Alexander Halavais

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“People who use search engines—and that is slowly approaching ‘everyone’—should know how they work, and what they mean to society” (3).

In the Halavais selection from Search Engine Society we read for 516, I was pulled into the discussion that seemed to echo some of the ideas Stuart Selber proffers in terms of critical literacy and becoming more aware of how we use technology and how that technology is situated in the wider cultural/social/political contexts around us.

When using general-purpose search engines (I use Google without fail), I typically skim over the first few hits that I see at the top of the screen. If I don’t see what I want or something that looks promising, I re-search.

The first search engine I used regularly was AltaVista (via the Netscape Navigator browser). I think Yahoo! found its way into my search queries, but at some point I moved exclusively to Google.

I used to search by typing out full sentences and questions, but have become more adept at thinking about and selecting keywords to search for. This is an art as much as a skill, I’ve found, and little changes (i.e., using synonyms) can drastically change the results of a search.

As a searcher, I don’t think much about the bias of the results that I see once I search for something. But as someone who’s attempted (not very successfully) to promote websites and build traffic, I’ve also been on that other side of the search engine, trying to find ways and using techniques in my page design and content to lift my page to the top of the list of certain search queries.

It’s interesting how I have a habit of separating my “searching” self from my “website design” self. When I get into search mode, I tend to forget that there are people out here working to manipulate/bias the results of the searches I make. This is one of those mindfulness things that I can bring into the classroom when talking to students about looking for research and scholarship to bring into their writing.

I try to be mindful of the politics of searching, and I think discussions like this are very much worthy of class time as well. There’s a well-known movement that’s attempted to link Republican Rick Santorum’s name to unpleasant search results (search at your own risk), but I’m betting there are many other examples of how search results can be shaped by political or cultural forces.

I think it’s worthwhile to have classroom discussions about how searches are recorded. Google knows where I go online, it knows what I search for, and it keeps track of it to better advertise something to me.

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“The word ‘search’ suggests that a person is interested in finding something that is lost” (34).

A final thought occurs to me that I might continue to mull over: What are the implications of using “engine” as a metaphor for all of that searching we are doing, both in terms of searchers and in terms of the folks creating/maintaining these tools. And, to explore a little more some of the semantic implications Halavais touched on, I wonder how much differently we might approach such tools if we conceived them as, say, “discovery engines” instead of  “search engines”?

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One thought on “Halavais — Search Engine Society

  1. I very much agree with your notion that Halavais resembles Selber’s theory of critical literacy. And with that I think you could take it another step and compare Halavais to Selber’s rhetorical literacy theory as well. The searcher needs to be “critical” or at least cognizant of the search results because search engines are “persuading” the results.

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