Search Atlas Demonstrates Google Search Bias by Location

July 28, 2021

An article at Wired reminds us that Google Search is not the objective source of information it appears to many users. We learn that “A New Tool Shows How Google Results Vary Around the World.” Researchers and PhD students Rodrigo Ochigame of MIT and Katherine Ye of Carnegie Mellon University created Search Atlas, an experimental Google Search interface. The tool displays three different sets of results to the same query based on location and language, illustrating both cultural differences and government preferences. “Information borders,” they call it.

The first example involves image searches for “Tiananmen Square.” Users in the UK and Singapore are shown pictures of the government’s crackdown on student protests in 1989. Those in China, or elsewhere using the Chinese language setting, see pretty photos of a popular tourist destination. Google says the difference has nothing to do with censorship—they officially stopped cooperating with the Chinese government on that in 2010, after all. It is just a matter of localized results for those deemed likely to be planning a trip. Sure. Writer Tom Simonite describes more of the tool’s results:

“The Search Atlas collaborators also built maps and visualizations showing how search results can differ around the globe. One shows how searching for images of ‘God’ yields bearded Christian imagery in Europe and the Americas, images of Buddha in some Asian countries, and Arabic script for Allah in the Persian Gulf and northeast Africa. The Google spokesperson said the results reflect how its translation service converts the English term ‘God’ into words with more specific meanings for some languages, such as Allah in Arabic. Other information borders charted by the researchers don’t map straightforwardly onto national or language boundaries. Results for ‘how to combat climate change’ tend to divide island nations and countries on continents. In European countries such as Germany, the most common words in Google’s results related to policy measures such as energy conservation and international accords; for islands such as Mauritius and the Philippines, results were more likely to cite the enormity and immediacy of the threat of a changing climate, or harms such as sea level rise.”

Search Atlas is not yet widely available, but the researchers are examining ways to make it so. They presented it at last month’s Designing Interactive Systems conference and are testing a private beta. Of course, the tool cannot reveal the inner workings of Google’s closely held algorithms. It does, however, illustrate the outsized power the company has over who can access what information. As co-creator Ye observes:

“People ask search engines things they would never ask a person, and the things they happen to see in Google’s results can change their lives. It could be ‘How do I get an abortion?’ restaurants near you, or how you vote, or get a vaccine.”

The researchers point to Safiya Noble’s 2018 book “Algorithms of Oppression” as an inspiration for their work. They hope their project will bring the biased nature of search algorithms to the attention of a broader audience.

Cynthia Murrell, July 28, 2021


One Response to “Search Atlas Demonstrates Google Search Bias by Location”

  1. Martin on July 28th, 2021 5:31 am

    I do wish we wouldn’t use the word objective and any search engine (including Google) in the same sentence. No search engine can possibly be objective, although I completely agree with the point about Google having skewed results.

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