Love is such a complicated concept, and so it is undoubtedly a common internet search term for any age. An elementary school student might search up “love” to learn how to get their crush to like them back. On the other hand, a college student might search up “love” to learn about what a lasting and committed relationship entails. Love seems to be present in our daily lives, but why? Why is love so prevalent? Why do we care so much about love? Through Robert du Gay’s description of representation in his circuit of culture, we can analyze how search engines algorithmically represent the search phrase: “why is love.” The search results we gather might tell us what the average consumers of this particular search engine are like and what implicit corporate intentions are behind those specifically represented search results.
In Robert du Gay’s description of the circuit of culture, representation is described as how the product’s meaning and purpose is relayed onto the consumer. It differs from identity in that it is no longer tied to just the individual or group identity anymore but extended to reveal the corporate and consumer intentions behind the product through their representation of the product. Essentially, we might be able to tell a lot about the intentions of the consumer and corporate identity which translates from how the product is represented. In this case, the product would be the search results, and the consumers would be the “searchers.”
I analyzed the search results of “why is love” from three search engines: Google, Ecosia, and Yahoo. As many might already know, Google is at the top of the list for the most popular search engines, according to this ReliableSoft article. Google holds a staggering 91.42% market share, and Yahoo, in third place, only holds about 1%. Yahoo is currently powered by Bing and the default search engine for FireFox browsers. Ecosia is further down the list at eighth place and is also powered by Bing. The main intention behind Ecosia is to use the revenue generated from the search engine to plant trees and restoration projects. However, Ecosia holds only about a 0.10% share of the market.
In the autosuggestion search results from Google, we can see that the top three most recommended results are “Why is love… important,” then “…so hard,” and finally “…so scary.”
- Screenshot of Google autosuggestions (google.com)
Yahoo and Ecosia have the same top autosuggestion and include a lot of other similar search recommendations.
- Screenshot of Yahoo autosuggestions (yahoo.com)
- Screenshot of Ecosia autosuggestions (ecosia.org)
Apart from the top result, many of the others seem to have negative connotations. Even with the top one, the searcher doesn’t already see the full value or use of love. Since it is the most popular search result, it makes it seem as if the average consumer does not already understand the true value of love. This might be because it is not something they would like to consider as important, or they just are generally unaware. However, from the search engine’s perspective, maybe Google, Yahoo, or Ecosia wants the searchers to be more aware and educated of the importance of love instead.
Generally, though, other search suggestions are along the lines of “why is love so hard,” and “why is love so scary,” and this is consistent across all the search engines. I can infer that the searchers may usually be leaning towards that more pessimistic view of love. Unlike the other two, Ecosia is based in Germany, not America. So, the fact that there are such consistent and strong negative feelings about love shows that there are similar values across both American and German cultures about the ever-present disappointing nature of love. These search suggestions about “why love is so painful” do not come out of curiosity. Behind each search suggestion may be a heartbreaking personal experience that seems to be shared among other users of the search engine, no matter the cultural background.
Analyzing further the autosuggestions based on the implicit intentions of the search engine, I see that most of the search recommendations in Google, Yahoo, and Ecosia are vague or tied to some other pop culture reference. For example, one autosuggestion is “why is Love Island so long.” Because the search suggestion leads to a very popular TV show, there are now so many other avenues that could prompt the consumer to click on more links. It might start with a simple question about the TV show, but it could lead to other aspects of the same TV show that could easily “trap” the consumer in a rabbit hole. Another example is “why is love bombing so bad.” This is also another avenue that could easily lead the consumer to delve very deep into the topic because of its vague and relatable nature, and therefore the consumer would utilize the search engine more. What could start at a therapist’s take on “love bombing” could evolve into other related psychological issues with love that the consumer could then easily become interested in. Therefore, the search suggestions representing a large variety of unrelated broad and referential ideas lead the searcher into exploring and searching related terms more, generating more revenue for the search engine.
If I press “enter” on just the search phrase, “Why is love,” I can see the most popular search results on the following pages. For Yahoo, there is a singled out text blurb that explains “Why love is important.”
- Screenshot of Yahoo search results (yahoo.com)
For Ecosia, there is no text blurb, but all of the search results are related to the importance of love.
- Screenshot of Ecosia search results (ecosia.org)
For Google, the most popular search results are what love actually is.
- Screenshot of Google search results (google.com)
Considering I never filled out the rest of my phrase, “why is love,” it is interesting that almost all of the search engines decided the first autosuggestion for me. One reason may be because this search result is one of the less negative or more neutral search results there. The search engine may represent this result to be the most favorable to allow the user to click around more while making conclusions for themselves, and to not want to click off the search engine after seeing a negative answer they might not like.
Furthermore, we can see how this search phrase, “why is love,” is represented in the image results tab, and how exactly this relates to the concepts in Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression. At the beginning of the book, she talks a lot about how there are certain biases in representation of varying identities like race through the search results. For example, in Chapter 2, Noble states that “Images of White Americans are persistently held up in Google’s images and in its results to reinforce the superiority and mainstream acceptability of Whiteness as the default “good” to which all other are made invisible.” (Noble 2018, 82). Essentially, Noble is arguing that these search algorithms are perpetuating stereotypes about certain groups of people and there is a lack of equal representation in search results. Given that the autosuggestions reflect a pretty pessimistic view on love, but the concept of love itself has an inherently positive connotation, what type of people may be represented in the image results? For Google, the majority of the pictures are just made up of sappy text posts, but we still do see POC representation, albeit toward the bottom of the immediate search results.
- Screenshot of Google image results (google.com)
Though, there are absolutely no queer couples shown, so there still might be an inclination toward heteronormativity. Therefore, the Google search results do seem to instill a predetermined and not inclusive frame on what love should look like.
Yahoo’s image results are similar in that they are mostly made up of text posts. Again, among the few couples shown, there are no queer couples.
- Screenshot of Yahoo image results (yahoo.com)
Ecosia’s image results, however, are in stark contrast with the other search engines. While the text posts shown in Yahoo and Google were mostly positive quotes that emphasize the importance of love, there seems to be a focus on the “bad love” or the aspects from the negative autosuggestions in Ecosia.
- Screenshot of Ecosia image results (ecosia.org)
At the top, other alternative search suggestions are “Why is it so hard to love,” and “Why is love so hard.” In the images themselves, there is one that explicitly says “why women like bad boys,” and in the image description of another, “why bad love is addictive.” Overall, this isn’t the extremely positive and lighthearted perspective that the other search engines take. Also, there is one image that sticks out with description, “Why do black men love the white…” Using the frame of Noble’s argument, this shows a racial bias in that interracial couples are seen as something “weird” or “out of the ordinary.” Is it a coincidence that the search engine with the most negative portrayal of love has an image of an interracial couple in the immediate search results? This might be another toxic bias of the search algorithm that Noble describes.
Each search engine has the power to create their own generalized perspective of love just by the immediate search results they present. For a topic as popular as love, the search engine could easily sway the public’s eye to a particular perspective, or further stabilize toxic stereotypes. The search results may be based off of implicit consumer or corporate intentions, or it could be purely quantitative data. However, if the algorithm is not monitored closely enough, those certain toxic social stereotypes or perspectives on a certain topic will never go away, leading to misguided or false representation.
- Chris, Alex. “Top 10 Search Engines in the World (2022 Update).” reliablesoft.net, May 6, 2022. https://www.reliablesoft.net/top-10-search-engines-in-the-world/.
- Dean, Grace. “Search Engine Ecosia Plants Trees in Exchange for Searches. It Uses Pay-per-Click Ads to Fund Projects That Positively Impact Both People and Nature.” Business Insider. Business Insider, May 23, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/ecosia-search-engine-plants-trees-searches-ads-germany-environment-2021-5.
- Gay, Paul Du. “Introduction.” Introduction. In Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, 1–5. Los Angeles Calif., etc.: Sage, 2013.
- Noble, Safiya Umoja. “Searching for Black Girls.” Essay. In Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, 82–82. New York: New York University Press, 2018.