It’s complicated because it has a significant bottom line. Part of the content on the first page of searches is indexed Web pages, which are often biased toward content that Google owns and makes money from, as documented by consumerwatchdog.org (pdf). It’s why you’re likely to get video results from YouTube (owned by Google) before you get them from Vimeo, even if they both have the same content available.
In order to get the right ads — which run down the right side or at the very top or bottom of the page — to show up, Google uses a computer algorithm for its AdWords product, which is different from the one it uses to generate search results (indexed Web pages). This tool creates linkages between keyword searches and ads. Through its ad programs, Google touts in its 2011 Economic Impact report that businesses receive $8 in profit for every $1 they spend with Google.
As for the search results we find on the first page, sometimes they are the result of popularity. Sites that get many visits or clicks are likely to surface near the top, but there are other factors, too, like the way advertising is linked to certain words. Google also makes money from its AdSense program that helps websites link their ads to searches on specific terms.
Search engine optimization is also at play. Managed by a cottage industry of companies and consultants outside of Google, this is a process of linking keywords to pages of a website, often embedded in the code, to help drive a site to the top.
No matter the Web mechanisms, sex is a lucrative industry online. The relationship between ads and websites when you search for women and girls is of no surprise. Anyone can buy “black girls” or any other word combinations. In this business model, communities are less in control of the ways in which they are represented. Identity is for sale to the highest bidder.
Latanya Sweeney of Harvard University just released a study (pdf) about the power of Google’s AdWords and racial identity. She found that “black-sounding” names are more likely to bring up advertising for criminal-background checks than white names. Sweeney’s work points to the ways that racial bias happens in Google search.
What is worrisome about the commercial-search business model is that companies have a vested interest in our clicking on websites and ads that make them the most money. This model has little relationship to the best way for us to find knowledge or information that we can trust. It drives home the reason we cannot substitute search engines for great schools, competent teachers and well-funded libraries. It raises questions about how companies, not communities, control what is found in a search engine. For marginalized groups that need continued advocacy for social, economic or political justice, co-optation of identity by these processes is problematic.