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A search engine is a computer program that allows the Internet user to enter a series of keywords, usually called a ‘query,’ and that responds with a list of results from a database that match the query. Major search engines, such as Google, Yahoo Search, and Bing (previously Microsoft Live Search), provide the most widely used method of finding information on the world wide web. Search engine websites are the most visited in the world. Google is the dominant leader with above 70 percent market share worldwide, around 60 percent in the US and up to around 90 percent in countries like Germany. The second biggest search engine, with 16 percent, is Baidu in China, introduced by the government to control Internet traffic. In 2013 Google worldwide received close to 6 billion searches per day (!), a figure that had doubled in only four years. There are at least four different dimensions in research on search engines. On the dimension of information-retrieval the search engine is studied as a complex programming problem. On the dimension of information literacy, the interactions between search engines and user skills are of paramount concern. Research on online marketing investigates the search engine’s effectiveness as a marketing tool. Finally, media law and policy scholars debate regulations relating to search engines.
A search engine has three core technological elements: the index, the crawler, and the search algorithm. The index contains references and pointers to the information on the web, much as the word and page numbers in a printed index refer to text in a book. In order to obtain the references for the index, search engines on the web use another computer program, called a ‘crawler’ or a ‘spider,’ to automatically browse pages by traversing hyperlinks between and within websites. The search algorithm has the complex task of matching the terms the user types into the search box with the references in the index and displaying them in ranked order. Problems revolve around the search algorithm and how to ensure that its results have sufficient precision related to the query.
With the world wide web, new challenges have been introduced. Among them are that the web demands search engines on a scale never seen before (web search indices contain references to billions of documents), that hundreds of thousands of queries must be processed per second, or that today the web contains many types of nontextual multimedia files, such as audio files, videos, and pictures.
Search engines are valuable sources of customers for online businesses. Search engines fund themselves primarily through advertising. Advertising does not appear typically in the main search engine listings, but instead the search engine operates a separate index of advertisements that are returned along with the main results when a user types in a query. These paid-for results are indicated as ‘sponsored links’ or ‘recommendations’ on the main search engine results page and are often set off in a separate area, for example in a column on the right-hand side of the page or in a box at the top.
Another element of marketing on search engines is search-engine optimization (SEO ). In SEO , the marketer tries to achieve a good placement in the main index (rather than purchasing results in the advertising index) by ‘optimizing’ their web pages so that they match the criteria used by the search engine’s ranking algorithm. In addition to legitimate SEO , the value of search engine traffic means that some marketers try to boost their traffic by artificially inflating some indicators. Google has been criticized for displaying search results not according to their fit for the user’s needs but as a result of advertising contracts with the respective companies or because of Google’s own commercial stakes in the respective business area.
Search engine companies are also increasingly involved in a series of legal controversies. A major focus of concern is a debate over censorship and free speech. Search engine owners have been criticized for censoring results in other countries, notably China, in accordance with government wishes. A second issue is user privacy because search engines routinely collect data on their users, including their queries and usage patterns. A third legal controversy concerns intellectual property rights online as search engines offer videos or news produced by others. A fourth area of legal discussions is the above mentioned fact that Google favors its own search results (for certain products) over those of specialist competitors. This legal conflict is currently under negotiation between Google and the European Commission.
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