Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Web searches for minority groups

By Murray Dick and Mark Ward

Rushmore Drive screen shot
Search engines catering for minority groups are growing in popularity
The genesis of the world wide web, in a Swiss laboratory, to serve a multi-national team of physicists, might lead many to think that the network is blind when it comes to race, sex, creed and colour.

But some sites are taking steps to address shortcomings in the way that the web serves some sectors of the population.

In October, Ask gave its search engine a fresh interface to help with its new-found focus on its core search audience, 60% of which were women.

In the US, a search site aimed squarely at black Americans, launched in April 2008.

It is more a matter of optimising the relevancy ranking based on one's cultural identity
Johnny Taylor
Rushmore Drive

Rushmore Drive's creator, Johnny Taylor, said search results can be more relevant to some social groups than to others. He cited the example of Type 2 diabetes, which predominantly affects Afro-Caribbean and Asian people.

He said: "If a user were to search for diabetes on Google, why would [Google] rank diabetes results as it pertains to black Americans early on in the result set, when only 14% of the US population is black?"

Results ranking

All search engines generate their results by looking at links leading to a webpage to get a sense of how important it is to web debate on that subject.

In such a set 'relevance' is a quantitative rather than a qualitative measure, and it is a short step from the 'wisdom of the crowds' to the 'tyranny of the majority'.

Said Mr Taylor: "People can affect change on Google, but the black population has less of an influence on Google to affect the result rankings."

With Rushmore Drive, said Mr Taylor, "it is more a matter of optimising the relevancy ranking based on one's cultural identity."

Rushmore Drive's editorial team seeks out sites relevant to the black community, and uses a unique algorithm which weights "black results" higher. It also exploits user feedback to tweak the relevance of results.

Aleks Krotoski, a social psychologist researcher at the University of Surrey, argued that such initiatives need to be seen in a wider sociological context.

"Each community has its own social norms, its own mores which are part of how its members make sense of the world," she said.

"Technology isn't a passive tool. It reflects the social norms and the mores of the people who developed it.

"So, the results of any search come from the algorithms and databases of their cultural perspectives," she added.

"They may not speak to or reflect the identity or needs of the minority group, who would achieve much better results by developing their own system from the bottom-up rather than to use one imposed from the top-down," she continued.

Web ownership

For Bill Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), there is no doubt that the web is a divisive force.

"There's still a relationship between using the internet and socio-economic status," he said.

"Those that have higher socio-economic status tend to be more likely to be online; that's to do with having a PC in the home," said Mr Dutton. "That's a barrier."

Research in the early 90s by the OII suggested that those living in "distressed" inner-city areas tended to feel that in using the web they were using someone else's technology.

"With web use becoming more common among younger people, there is a greater sense of ownership," he said.

Also, he added, there was no doubt that the web was getting more representative as it started to include more languages.

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo have already picked up on the trend towards more niche web use by providing the means to develop individual search engines via Custom Search and Search Builder sites.

Yahoo's BOSS (Build your Own Search Service) even allows developers to customise their own results ranking, and so create bespoke search engines which can reflect the needs and interests of a particular search community.

"If the web community at large becomes niche-centric, then community search, for those people, could be much more effective than Google or any other search engine, said media consultant Mihaela Lica.

Bunch of fiber-optic cables
The increase broadband availability is helping to break down class divides

Segregated knowledge?

But, she pointed out, community-based search sites face problems when pursuing a relatively narrow audience.

Ever-decreasing relevance, when drilling down within certain socio-demographic groups, is one factor.

Once an algorithm is developed to appeal effectively to one sociological group, further subdivisions within that group become an issue; between male and female searchers, or young and old searchers, for example.

Ms Lica said there were practical problems as sites letting their narrow groups help refine results. In the case of Rushmore Drive she said "How would they know that the user who gets involved in the rating, searching, refining process is actually a member of the black community?"

And, she added, those who believe in the unifying power of the web may baulk at the notion of "black" and "white" search results.

She said: "Online we have no colour - 'segregating' knowledge is not something that gets my vote. Search results should be unbiased and impartial."

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