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Conventional wisdom says that search engines are a fundamentally unfair technology – favoring the most popular sites and helping them to become even more popular. This assumption, captured in the term “Googlearchy,” is now being challenged by researchers at Indiana University who have used real-life data to test it. Their results show that Web-surfing behavior isn’t as influenced by search-engine rankings as was previously thought.

Understanding the impact of search engines isn’t just an academic undertaking, says Filippo Menczer, professor of informatics and computer science at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. It has implications for creating online advertising models based on search results, building better search engines, devising online political campaigns, and understanding how people use the Internet. “Search engines have become the gateways between people and information,” he says. “If a search engine has a bias, it has a huge impact because it can direct people to one sort of information and not another.”

Search engines rank and list pages by popularity, a feature measured, in part, by how well-connected a page is to the rest of the Web. The more pages linking to a certain page, the higher that page will rank. Since these highly ranked sites are easier to find through a search, they will continue to get more hits. “The more popular sites get more and more links and new sites have no hope,” says Menczer.

The researchers created two extreme Web-browsing models: a person who used only search engines to find content and a person who browsed without search engines, instead following links from one page to another. The researchers then compared these two models with real-life data about site traffic for Web pages and the number of links pointing to those pages.

They expected the real-world data to fall somewhere between the two extremes: targeted searching and haphazard surfing. Instead, it turned out that typical Web use – presumably a combination of searching and surfing – concentrated less on popular Web sites than either model had predicted. In other words, real-world Web searching does not fuel the Googlearchy nor does it keep less-popular sites from being found. “This was not what we expected and we were surprised by it,” says Menczer.

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