More Trouble For Search…

Wrong haystack?

Searching for content on the Internet is hard enough, but according to researchers at the ICSI (International Computer Science Institute) at Berkeley, there are complications beyond out of date information and an overwhelming number of search results, things we today consider to be typical manifestation of search failures.

According to research papers published separately by the ICSI and Usenix, the Advanced Computing Systems Association, search queries made with major search Web engines that include Bing, Yahoo, and Google are sometimes rerouted through third party proxies controlled by Paxfire, an advertising company whose involvement was uncovered by the ICSI researchers via analysis of patent applications. The rerouting occurred for users of 10 U.S. ISPs, and has now been halted according to the New Scientist, which broke the story last week. Paxfire and RCN (one of the ISPs) are now the subject of a class action lawsuit alleging violation of privacy safeguards covered in the 1968 Wiretap Act.

The practice appears to have been intended to monetize search results for the ISPs by directing traffic to specific sites. The ICSI researchers have identified 165 search terms that include “apple”, “dell”, “bloomingdales”, and “safeway” that, when entered into a search tool, would be passed to an online marketing company by the ISP, which would redirect the user straight to the respective company’s online retail site. The search was essentially hijacked and never actually went through the search engine.

The online marketing companies are paid by site owners (in this case the retail companies, although there is no indication the companies had knowledge of the redirecting of searches to their sites) to supply traffic to Web sites. In exchange for leading search users directly to the retail sites the online marketing companies then pass on a cut of their fee to the ISPs and Paxfire. The process bypasses the search engine entirely because use of the targeted terms result in the user being taken straight to the retailer’s site, instead of a search results page.

The ISPs involved in the practice stopped redirecting Google traffic after the company complained to them last year, but up until this week were still carrying out the practice for searches made with Bing and Yahoo.

Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group, told the New Scientist that “This interception and alteration of search traffic is not just your average privacy problem…This is deep violation of users’ trust and expectations about how the internet is supposed to function.”

I would go even further than that. It is indeed a massive privacy and trust violation, but for the knowledge worker, this is yet one more wake up call that search continues to be a flawed tool that one must use with a critical eye. The practice of search redirection demonstrates (as if there was much doubt) that search is not a neutral and agnostic process; there are competing interests and financial motivations behind every Internet search and the knowledge worker must be aware of these biases. It is not enough to simply worry about how authoritative a piece of content is, it is imperative to be critical about the entire process, starting with the selection of a search tool, to the entering of a search query, and to the examination and analysis of the results.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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