A new citizen science project will examine just how much influence search engines have over individuals.

In 2020, Google processed more than 3.5 billion searches a day – and Forbes Magazine reports that most people see search engines as the most trusted source of information. But not all searches produce the same results.

Search engines adjust their recommendations to suit individuals’ interests. Experts want to know how such personalisation can influence decisions.

The new QUT-led Australian Search Experience project invites Australian internet users to join the project as citizen scientists, and download a simple browser plugin to their computer. 

The plugin runs regular searches for common search terms, and reports the results back to the research project. Across thousands of participants, these individual data donations produce a comprehensive picture of what search results different Australians encounter. The plugin has been designed not to transmit any private data at any time.

The project will explore whether search engines have the potential to create ‘filter bubbles’ or to promote misinformation and disinformation, according to chief investigator Professor Axel Bruns.

“There is a lot of speculation about the impact search engines have on the information we encounter. But we really know very little about how they order and display that information,” said Professor Bruns.

“Search engine personalisation may be influencing your search results and consequently shaping what you know of the world. This can affect personal decisions as well as collective decisions as a society – from how we spend our money to who we vote for, and to our attitudes on critical issues like the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

“If you wonder why your search results may differ from those of a friend, colleague or family member, then we’d like you to participate in this project.

“Modern digital news and media platforms use automated decision-making systems intensively, but rarely reveal how their systems work. We need a way to independently assess the recommendations of search engines, which is why we are running this citizen science project.”

The Australian Search Experience project will study the personalisation of search results for critical news and information, across key platforms including Google and YouTube, based on the profiles these platforms establish for their different users.

“The project will provide an independent assessment of how search engines shape the flow of information and public discourse for Australians. We will regularly share our findings with the public,” Prof Bruns said.

More information and opportunities to get involved are available here.