Annotation: When search engines stopped being human: menu interfaces and the rise of the ideological nature of algorithmic search

In recent years, some have argued that if you can’t find something on Google, it might as well not exist. This assertion is problematic, given that according to various estimates, the scope of Google’s search index range from 4 percent to .004 percent of the total Internet. The true number of searchable web pages is unknown, but we can reasonably place it in the ballpark of “a very small percentage of the World Wide Web.”

But since web search engines are simple to use and usually return somewhat useful results, it’s easy to pretend they provide access to “all the world’s knowledge.” For me, several questions arise from this:

  • To what extent have search engines replaced librarians?
  • What is the effect of web search on the practices and dispositions of information literacy?
  • How did we come to accept products like Google Search as default information resources, and what is the impact of this acceptance on what we know?

Neils Kerssens examines these questions in the context of “positivist algorithmic ideology,” a normalizing force that frames certain practices as an established standard exempt from further interrogation. He briefly traces the transformation of online search from menu-based interfaces in the 1970s and 80s to the birth of algorithmic search engines in the 90s, in contrast with the information search and retrieval practices of librarianship.

Reference librarians will easily recognize a key difference between librarians and search engines: the role of human intellectual labor in the exercise of transparent “selection power” in the search process. Librarians in everyday practice perform a service function by developing a search strategy and working with the user to form a initial queries, followed by an editorial function in evaluating and selecting information to meet the user’s needs. As described in Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process and other library science-based formulations of information-seeking strategy and behavior, the process is necessarily exploratory and iterative. Traditional reference workers develop search strategies in concert with users, applying their own subject matter knowledge and technical expertise with databases and indexing schema.

In comparison, online search engines replace the democratic practices of query formulation and selection of search results with an opaque process driven by proprietary software algorithms. Users might assume a search engine like Google is unbiased, but as Kerssens points out, algorithmic applications “always involve processes of selection, filtering and ranking.” In the case of proprietary algorithms and their implementation in a complex systems like Google’s Park Rank, users cannot know how they are selecting, filtering, and ranking.

And yet, Google has become the first and often the last place billions of people now visit to answer questions. It seems that the search algorithm has become an article of faith.


Kerssens, Niels. 2017. “When Search Engines Stopped Being Human: Menu Interfaces and the Rise of the Ideological Nature of Algorithmic Search.” Internet Histories 1 (3): 219–37.