Search engines: From social science objects to academic inquiry tools

Filippo Trevisan

Abstract


This paper discusses the challenges and opportunities involved in incorporating publicly available search engine data in scholarly research. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have started to include tools such as Google Trends (http://google.com/trends) in their work. However, a central ‘search engine’ field of inquiry has yet to emerge. Rather, the use of search engine data to address social research questions is spread across many disciplines, which makes search valuable across fields but not critical to any one particular area. In an effort to stimulate a comprehensive debate on these issues, this paper reviews the work of pioneering scholars who devised inventive — if experimental — ways of interpreting data generated through search engine accessory applications and makes the point that search engines should be regarded not only as central objects of research, but also as fundamental tools for broader social inquiry. Specific concerns linked to this methodological shift are identified and discussed, including: the relationship with other, more established social research methods; doubts over the representativeness of search engine data; the need to contextualize publicly available search engine data with other types of evidence; and the limited granularity afforded to researchers by tools such as Google Trends. The paper concludes by reflecting on the combination of search engine data with other forms of inquiry as an example of arguably inelegant yet innovative and effective ‘kludgy’ design (Karpf, 2012).

Keywords


search engines; Google; digital methods; big data; cross-disciplinary research

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i11.5237



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