The Engine

Source Distance Research (the significance of source ranking in search engine returns)

Researching the presence as well as the ranking of particular sources within Google engine results, using the Google Scraper as well as the IssueDramaturg.

Issues with the object of study

On the Web, sources compete to offer the user information (Rogers, 2004). The results of this competition are seen, for instance, in the 'drama' surrounding search engine returns. A Website, having achieved a high ranking for a particular query, slowly slips from the top, and eventually out of the top ten results. What does such a slippage say about the Website, and the organization behind it? What does the drop in ranking say about the site's standing in the competition to provide the information? The focus here is on how to research particular sources' prominence in search engine results. For example, listening to the radio and watching TV, climate change skeptics appear to be close to the 'top of the news'? There are those who are skeptical about a "discernible human influence on global climate" (as the famous sentence read in the 1995 IPCC Second Assessment Report), and the skepticism is part of the climate change story, e.g., in the moment of reporting about the cancellation of the BBC event, Planet Relief, in 2007. The reason for the cancellation was that the show would uphold the position of so-called mainstream climate science, without presenting both sides of the issue, that is, the skeptics' view.

Thus, if climate change skepticism is often at the top of the news, how far is it from the top of the Web? The answer to this and similar 'source distance' inquiries goes a way towards accounting for the distinctiveness of new media, especially whether the 'top' sources for a story or issue are similar to those in other media.

Approaches

Source distance.

How is one able to study the distance of a source from the top of the Web? How does one undertake the study of the presence or absence of particular sources in Google engine returns? To answer these questions we make use of the Google Scraper. With the tool one is able to capture the top 1000 results from a Google query. (1000 is the maximum number of results served by Google.) Subsequently one is able to note particular organizations ranking for the query, and also search within the results for the presence and absence of a host name, be it a non-governmental organization, a governmental site or a company. One also may classify site types in the returns for a query, i.e., a particular issue area, say Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), may be dominated by companies and the trade press, with occasional presence of an NGO and a governmental agency. The work may be performed diachronically as well. Thus one is able to compare the source composition in a set of search engine returns over time.

Website rankings over time.

One of the questions raised in the study of search engine returns concerns the stability or volatility of Website rankings over time. Do Websites precipitously rise or fall from the top spots ('pole positions') or other positions more generally, or is there some stability in rankings? (For well-known organizations' ranking over time, see the information graphic, hyperlink economy). In order to answer this question, one may use the IssueDramaturg, which queries Google regularly for a particular term, and depicts selected organizations' ranking over time in a line graph. For example, for the query 9/11, one notes relative stability in the ranking of the New York Times (top 100), the New York City Government (top 200) and 911truth.org (top 10). However, in September 2007 911truth.org suddenly dropped out of the first 200 results, and subsequently the top 1000, absent from search engine return space for some three weeks. It later returned to its top 5 position. Thus, not only does it matter what one searches for, but also when.

Sample Project

Climate Change Skeptics. How close are they to the top of the Web?

Introduction

To what extent are climate change 'skeptics' present in the climate change spaces on the Web? The question is posed in order to gain insight into whether the Web, and the devices that rank information, privilege the skeptics in ways similar to other media such as the news. Does Google grant the skeptics voice in its returns for a “climate change” query? In the journalistic convention both sides of the story are represented, but in the climate change space provided by Google, the skeptics’ presence is scant.

Method

Make a list of climate change skeptics.

There is a variety of sources that provide lists of the names of climate change skeptics, as well as the organizations that sponsor them. One may also make a list on the basis of the keynote speakers and/or attendees of the first climate change skeptics conference, hosted in 2008 by the Heartland Institute.

The following list of climate change skeptics is derived from triangulating mentions of the names of skeptics by Source Watch, Mother Jones magazine and the sociologists, Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap. (See the list of references.)

Final list of skeptics (as well as organizations that support skeptics)

Persons

  • S. Fred Singer
  • Robert Balling
  • Sallie Baliunas
  • Patrick Michaels
  • Richard Lindzen
  • Steven Milloy
  • Timothy Ball
  • Paul Driessen
  • Willie Soon
  • Sherwood B. Idso
  • Frederick Seitz

Skeptical organisations*

  • American Enterprise Institute
  • American Legislative Exchange Council
  • Center for Science and Public Policy
  • Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute
  • Frontiers of Freedom
  • Marshall Institute
  • Heartland Institute
  • Tech Central Station

*This list may be used during the analysis of the results, e.g., when noting the affiliation or partisanship of a source with (many) mentions of the skeptics. Are skeptics most predominantly mentioned by the skeptical organizations, or also by other organizations? Or do watchdogs mention the skeptics most significantly? The question also may be whether there are other organizations that mention skeptics apart from skeptical organizations and watchdogs.

Tool Use

  1. Using the Google Scraper, query Web for climate change, that is, enter "climate change" in the bottom box of the scraper. Set preferences to return 100 results. Name file. Scrape.
  2. The 100 results are copied and pasted into the first input field (top box) of the Google Scraper.
  3. In the bottom box of the Google Scraper, paste the names of the skeptics (e.g., "Steven Milloy"), one name per line.
  4. Pressing Scrape Google searches each site in the top 100 results for climate change for each skeptic.
  5. The results are shown in a tag cloud, that is, how many times has a source mentioned a skeptic on its Website (with a default ceiling of 100 mentions per site).
  6. One may copy and paste the results into the tag cloud generator, which outputs a designed version of the cloud, in the form of an .svg file. The .svg file may be opened in Adobe Illustrator for further editing.

Findings

  1. There is distance between the skeptics and the top of the search engine returns. Note that few skeptics appear on the Websites of the top ten results in Google. When they do appear (Patrick Michaels, Steven Milloy) their resonance is not particularly resounding.
  2. One may evaluate sources according to the frequency with which each mentions the skeptics. There are skeptic-friendly sites, and less skeptic-friendly sites.
  3. From the visualization one is able to see the "skeptic-friendly" sources, realclimate.org and, to a lesser extent, climatescience.gov stand out as skeptic-friendly. Sourcewatch also is prominent, albeit as a progressive watchdog group 'exposing' the skeptics.
  4. Remarkably, news sites, generally speaking, do not mention the climate change skeptics by name. Whilst news watchers and listeners may have the impression that 'uncertainty' in the climate change 'debate' continues in a general sense (as opposed to, say, in more specific, scientific sub-discussions), 'uncertainty' appears to be discussed without resort to the well-known, or identified, skeptics.

Implications

The question concerns the extent to which the Web stages climate change as a controversy vis a vis other media spaces, such as news. Here the Web is understood as a search-based medium, and controversy as the relative penetration of the skeptics in the climate change search results space. A comparison between the skeptics' resonance on the Web and in the news is a next step.

References

Business and Media Institute (2007). "Skeptical Scientists," http://www.businessandmedia.org/specialreports/2007/globalwarming/SkepticalScientists.asp

McCright, Aaron M. and Dunlap, Riley E. (2003). "Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy," Social Problems. 50(3): 348-373, http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/sp.2003.50.3.348.

Mother Jones (2005). "Put a tiger in your think tank". http://www.motherjones.com/news/featurex/2005/05/exxon_chart.html

Sourcewatch (current). "Global Warming Skeptics". http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Climate_change_skeptics

Union of Concerned Scientists (2007). "Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil uses big tobacco's tactics to manufacture uncertainty on climate change." http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf

Wikipedia (current). "Global Warming Skeptics". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Global_warming_skeptics

Further Literature

Hindman, Matthew (2009). The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rogers, Richard (2004). Information Politics on the Web. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Spink, Amanda & Jansen, Bernard J. (2004). Web Search: Public Searching of the Web. Kluwer Academic Publishing.

Van Couvering, Elizabeth (2004). "New Media? The Political Economy of Internet Search Engines". Presented at the Annual Conference of the International Association of Media & Communications Researchers. Porto Alegre, Brazil, July 25-30, 2004.

Van Couvering, Elizabeth (2007). "Is Relevance Relevant? Market, Science, and War: Discourses of Search Engine Quality." Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. 12(3). http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue3/vancouvering.html

Wouters, Paul, Hellsten, Iina and Leydesdorff, Loet (2004). "Internet time and the reliability of search engines," First Monday. 9(10), http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_10/wouters/index.html.
Topic revision: r15 - 15 Nov 2010, ErikBorra
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