Is Relevance Relevant? Market, Science, and War: Discourses of Search Engine Quality



In the face of rising controversy about search engine results—that they are too restrictive, too comprehensive, lacking in certain areas, over-represented in others—this article presents the results of in-depth interviews with search engine producers, examining their conceptions of search engine quality and the implications of those conceptions. Structuration theory suggests that the cultural schemas that frame these discourses of quality will be central in mobilizing resources for technological development. The evidence presented here suggests that resources in search engine development are overwhelmingly allocated on the basis of market factors or scientific/technological concerns. Fairness and representativeness, core elements of the journalists’ definition of quality media content, are not key determiners of search engine quality in the minds of search engine producers. Rather, alternative standards of quality, such as customer satisfaction and relevance, mean that tactics to silence or promote certain websites or site owners (such as blacklisting, whitelisting, and index “cleaning”) are seen as unproblematic.