Wonderful Statement about Baked In Search Bias

October 12, 2022

I was scanning the comments related to the HackerNews’ post for this article: “Google’s Million’s of Search Results Are Not Being Served in the Later Pages Search Results.”

Sailfast made this comment at this link:

Yeah – as someone that has run production search clusters before on technologies like Elastic / open search, deep pagination is rarely used and an extremely annoying edge case that takes your cluster memory to zero. I found it best to optimize for whatever is a reasonable but useful for users while also preventing any really seriously resource intensive but low value queries (mostly bots / folks trying to mess with your site) to some number that will work with your server main node memory limits.

The comment outlines a facet of search which is not often discussed.

First, the search plumbing imposes certain constraints. The idea of “all” information is one that many carry around like a trusted portmanteau. What are the constraints of the actual search system available or in use?

Second, optimization is a fancy word that translates to one or more engineers deciding what to do; for example, change a Bayesian prior assumption, trim content based on server latency, filter results by domain, etc.

Third, manipulation of the search system itself by software scripts or “bots” force engineers to figure out what signals are okay and which are not okay. It is possible to inject poisoned numerical strings or phrases into a content stream and manipulate the search system. (Hey, thank you, search engine optimization researchers and information warfare professionals. Great work.)

When I meet a younger person who says, “I am a search expert”, I just shake my head. Even open source intelligence experts display that they live in a cloud of unknowing about search. Most of these professionals are unaware that their “research” comes from Google search and maps.

Net net: Search and retrieval systems manifest bias, from the engineers, from the content itself, from the algorithms, and from user interfaces themselves. That’s why I say in my lectures, “Life is easier if one just believes everything one encounters online.” Thinking in a different way is difficult, requires specialist knowledge, and a willingness to verify… everything.

Stephen E Arnold, October 12, 2022


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