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An investigation of biases in web search engine query suggestions

Malte Bonart (Institute of Information Science, Technische Hochschule Köln, Cologne, Germany)
Anastasiia Samokhina (Department of Data Science, Recogizer Group GmbH, Bonn, Germany)
Gernot Heisenberg (Institute of Information Science, Technische Hochschule Köln, Cologne, Germany)
Philipp Schaer (Institute of Information Science, Technische Hochschule Köln, Cologne, Germany)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 23 December 2019

Issue publication date: 9 June 2020

Abstract

Purpose

Survey-based studies suggest that search engines are trusted more than social media or even traditional news, although cases of false information or defamation are known. The purpose of this paper is to analyze query suggestion features of three search engines to see if these features introduce some bias into the query and search process that might compromise this trust. The authors test the approach on person-related search suggestions by querying the names of politicians from the German Bundestag before the German federal election of 2017.

Design/methodology/approach

This study introduces a framework to systematically examine and automatically analyze the varieties in different query suggestions for person names offered by major search engines. To test the framework, the authors collected data from the Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo query suggestion APIs over a period of four months for 629 different names of German politicians. The suggestions were clustered and statistically analyzed with regards to different biases, like gender, party or age and with regards to the stability of the suggestions over time.

Findings

By using the framework, the authors located three semantic clusters within the data set: suggestions related to politics and economics, location information and personal and other miscellaneous topics. Among other effects, the results of the analysis show a small bias in the form that male politicians receive slightly fewer suggestions on “personal and misc” topics. The stability analysis of the suggested terms over time shows that some suggestions are prevalent most of the time, while other suggestions fluctuate more often.

Originality/value

This study proposes a novel framework to automatically identify biases in web search engine query suggestions for person-related searches. Applying this framework on a set of person-related query suggestions shows first insights into the influence search engines can have on the query process of users that seek out information on politicians.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This paper forms part of the special section on Social and cultural biases in information, algorithms and systems.

Citation

Bonart, M., Samokhina, A., Heisenberg, G. and Schaer, P. (2020), "An investigation of biases in web search engine query suggestions", Online Information Review, Vol. 44 No. 2, pp. 365-381. https://doi.org/10.1108/OIR-11-2018-0341

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited