Algorithmic imaginaries

Visions and values in the shaping of search engines

Search engines are not devoid of societal norms, values and ideologies. What visions and values influence the shaping and governing of search engines in the particular European context? The new research project „Algorithmic Imaginaries“ funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) tries to find an answer to this question.

Bing, Google & Yahoo are run by US-American technology companies. Big, universal search engines use personalized advertising to make profit. In Europe, Google holds a market share of more than 90% and hence dominates the search engine market. One reason is its innovative PageRank algorithm, but also its profitable business model based on „trade in data“. Google’s algorithm was known for innovation and objectivity at first. This positive image is increasingly overshadowed by discussions on user surveillance, commercialization of web information, and filter bubbles. Particularly since the NSA affair profit-oriented search engine operators have come under critique. These developments show that search engines are not devoid of societal values, political visions and ideologies. And exactly these ideologies and values are at the core of the research project.


Focusing on three European search engines the goal is to investigate how search engines are developed in the European context and what role common values and collective visions play in this. The choice of case studies tries to do justice to the diversity of the European search engine landscape: The first search project, Open-Web-Index, aims at providing an alternative to US-based search engines by developing a publicly funded, independent web index. The second search engine, YaCy, has the goal to build a decentral, non-commercial search engine that is owned by the public. The third case study, StartPage, is a privacy-friendly search engine that uses the Google index, but provides users with anonymity. The following questions will guide the analysis:

  • What motivations, value systems, and visions guide the development of European search engines?
  • How do these imaginations get translated into sociotechnical design practices?
  • What negotiations, compromises and power dynamics may be observed?
  • How do place and cultural context matter in the development of these search engines?


These questions will be answered using a case-study approach, which includes qualitative interviews, workshops with developers and on-site observations. The results from this analysis will be compared to results from two other research projects. The first project dealt with capitalist ideologies shaping the development of universal search engines. The second project investigated socio-political visions in the governing of search engines on the European level. The comparative analysis will use the concept „socio-technical imaginaries“ by Sheila Jasanoff, which will be further developed into a typology of „algorithmic imaginaries“. These will show how search technology and society are co-produced in particular economic, political and cultural settings. The primary focus on the European context is a particular strength of the project since tensions between globally operating search engines like Google and European visions and values seem to grow.

Taking a close look at search algorithms, engines and services. (Picture: CC0 Public Domain)
11/2016 - 08/2022
Elise Richter project