Resource Shelf alerted me to research by Harvard Professor Benjamin Edelman: “Hard-Coding Bias in Google “Algorithmic” Search Results.” Edelman, who discloses that he consults for companies who compete with Google (which I do as well, consulting for this blog’s sponsor Deep Web Technologies), writes about the disconnect between Google’s commitment to providing unbiased results and its efforts to keep its users on its own properties.
A cynical user might expect Google to prominently link to its own services. After all, keeping users on Google properties means more opportunities to show ads — hence greater revenue. And every click Google sends through a no-cost algorithmic link is a lost revenue opportunity.
But on numerous occasions, Google has promised not to succumb to temptation to bias its search results. To the contrary, Google has committed to provide users with the best possible links, chosen fairly and even-handedly.
I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to see such an article about Google biasing some search results with its own content since I expect Google and every other search engine that is driven by search revenue to feature its results first. What was surprising to me, though, was how strong Google’s promise was “not to succumb to temptation to bias its search results.”
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Information Today columnist Don Hawkins recently published “A Blunt Assessment of Search Discovery Tools.” Hawkins highlights some concerns that the Montana State University library raised with two discovery services that they experimented with, WorldCat Local and Summon.
- Many records didn’t have OCLC numbers so did not show up in the database.
- Some known items (mainly government documents) were not found.
- The vendor promised a simple implementation, but loading one digital collection was slow.
- Problems occurred in the details: deleted items continued to appear; known item searches may not work.
- Database name searches may require an exact match.
- One experiment resulted in a 29% failure rate for a subject search.
- Sometimes discovery tools search the full text, but not always, and we don’t know when they do.
- Relevance is not good yet.
Ex Libris Chief Librarian Carl Grant raised concerns of his own, but from a different slant. In “Gladiators” to perform sleight-of-hand at Charleston Conference.” Grant makes a pretty strong assertion, referring to EBSCO and Serials Solutions:
These two particular firms are, as Library Journal says, in the “greatest competition” because they are, first and foremost, publishers/aggregators fighting head-to-head for their first line of business, which is content and content aggregation services. The discovery solution is secondary to them and it is shown in numerous ways by their actions.
He proceeds to provide questions to discovery service providers to understand their true motivations. These questions, of course, reflect the interests of discovery service provider Ex Libris. Nonetheless, those exploring discovery services need to ask these questions.
The upshot — federated search isn’t dead yet and discovery services are not the magic bullet the marketing material would have you believe.