Users have an inherent, but often misplaced, trust in the ability of search engines to rank results by their true relevance to queries, new research has revealed.
An eye-tracking experiment published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication revealed that, when college student web users selected a link from Google's result pages, their decisions were strongly biased towards higher ranking links.
However, this bias was found to persist even if the more highly-placed content was less relevant to the search query than entries at the bottom of the list.
"Despite the popularity of search engines, most users are not aware of how they work, and know little about the implications of their algorithms," said study author Bing Pan.
"When websites rank highly in a search engine, they might not be authoritative, unbiased or trustworthy."
This has important long-term implications for search engine results, according to Pan, as this type of use affects future rankings.
"The way that college students conduct online searches promotes a 'rich-get-richer' phenomenon where popular sites get more hits regardless of relevance," he explained.
"This further cements the site's high ranking, and makes it more difficult for lesser known sites to gain an audience."
Pan warned that users need to be aware that search engines have "tremendous influence" on what and how information is accessed.
An effort on the part of search engine developers to provide users with information on how the algorithms function could help to raise user awareness, he concluded.
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