A couple of months ago, I sat down and looked up every Chicago neighborhood in Google. I made note of how Google portrayed each neighborhood, focusing on loaded keywords and adjectives. This is the final article in a four-part series discussing my findings. I suggest you start at the beginning.
We've discussed in the previous articles in this series how Google can affect our perceptions by changing the order of their search results. We've also discussed how a Google search results page (SERP) will have both a list of links, and a list of "related searches" at the bottom. In the course of my research I noticed that for some neighborhoods, Google would suggest "homes for sale" as a related search. In some cases it would alternatively suggest "condos for sale" or "lofts for sale." For others it would only suggest "apartments for rent." The difference is more important than you'd initially think.
"Everything is Made Up and the Points Don't Matter."
There has been some conflict in Chicago lately in neighborhoods that have expressed hostility towards renters. Alderman Burnett of the 27th ward was the subject of some drama when he called his consitutents "bigoted" for wanting to minimize the presence of renters. Alderman Pawar in the 47th ward has also been the center of conflict around "transit-oriented design" and the construction of high density rentals in a neighborhood that has a reputation for being largely owner-occupied. The arguments against renters are relatively consistent. Renters are seen by owners as casual, destitute, and criminally destructive. The typical standoff pits wealthy white owners against minority renters. It's a very loaded debate that uses property values as a false front for a culture war.
The argument that renters lower property values has little scientific merit. The Realtors' "Field Guide to the Effects of Low Income Housing on Property Values" covers some of the research. Another article in the Fiscal Times links to several conflicting studies about the matter. However, scientific studies have little impact on residential real estate. Even those who profess to be color blind may find their hidden prejudices surfacing once hundreds of thousands of dollars, personal security and their future estate are on the line. When it comes to your average Joe Homebuyer, suspicion and hard facts are weighted equally.
... But Authority Does.
Realtors are prohibited by law from guiding their clients on the basis of race, gender, age and all the other good and wonderful protected fair housing classes. In some ways this is because Realtors are accepted authority figures for their clients and therefore their words carry greater impact than your average person when it comes to choosing neighborhoods.
We tend see computers as restricted to binary decisions. Modern technology allows computerized results to be quite varied, but we still think of their results as yes/no answers. Studies such as this Master's thesis by Kristin Carter from 2011 (PDF) have shown that web users will use suggested/related searches as cues to help them figure out which links are trustworthy. If a search result says a neighborhood is "fantastic, great, super," but the computer says it's "loud, terrible, dangerous", we'll be inclined to think the result is not to be trusted. We refer to the related searches as our answers in the back of the book. They are our absolute authority, even though they are in turn generated from our own search activity.
So, if Google is saying that some neighborhoods are for renters and others are for owners, it's taking an active role in determining the overall character of our surroundings.
Of the 231 neighborhoods we searched, 117 of them had no indicator of rent or buy in the suggested searches. 63 of them only mentioned rentals. 19 of them only offered "homes for sale" or "condos for sale." 31 offered both options. Alderman Burnett will be perhaps pleased to know that Google offers both options for his conflicted West Loop neighborhood. Menawhile, owners in Alderman Pawar's Lincoln Square and Ravenswood neighborhoods might be surprised to learn that Google considers them to be interlopers on renters-only turf.
Below you'll find a map showing the breakdown. Red areas are rental only, green areas are buy only, yellow areas suggested both, and white areas suggested neither.
There's definitely more colored sections on this map than the ones we showed in last week's post about race, class & lifestyle. There's also a much renter red in on the north side than on the south side, which is the opposite of what we'd expect given the respective reputations of each. The north side is supposed to be all "wealthy white folks" while the south side is supposed to be "poor black folks." So what's with all the renters up north? If renters supposedly cause property values to tank, why isn't Google suggesting "apartments for rent" for most neighborhoods south of Hyde Park? The answer lies in what is really involved in the generation of suggested searches, and search engine results in general.
A Fun House Mirror
Google does adjust the mechanics behind the ordering of search results. They also generate the suggested searches. However, they do neither of these things in a vacuum. The results are a combination of the content generated by website owners, the content of the sites that link to them, and our own behavior as searchers. "Suggested searches" are basically the most common subjects we ourselves have used to modify our original search terms. So, if we search on, say, "Wrigleyville" and don't find what we're looking for, we'll change our search to be more precise, for example: "Schools in Wrigleyville." The top 8 of these refinements across all of Google's user base are theoretically what we see in the Suggested Searches area.
So the "suggested searches" are the preferences of the majority reflected back at us. They aren't sourced from Google's own opinions. If "apartments for rent" appears in one neighborhood but not in another, it's because that's how we as the web-using public have used Google in the past.
It is a very specific subset of the public that would search on Google for Chicago neighborhood information. They are new to town, don't know the area, and have the knowledge, curiosity and access to technology to do Google searches in the first place. That whole description overlaps heavily with young, wealthy and employed - exactly the type of person who would be looking for a rental in the red areas of the map - along the highways, the CTA train lines, and across the north side.
Is Google at fault for any of this?
Is Google to blame for how Chicago neighborhoods are portrayed in search results? Sort of. They do frequently reshuffle the mechanics behind the ordering of results, so their hands are not entirely clean. But what we see as the result of a Google search is may be more affected by our own click history and those of other Google users than it is by any direct influence from the Big G. What we're seeing in our search results is the equivalent of everyone's blabbermouth Aunt all talking at once, if such a thing could be tidily consolidated, tallied and sorted.
There's no denying that search engines have a large effect on popular opinion. Businesses - and apparently neighborhoods - could rise and fall based on the contents of these computer-generated web pages. It's important to be mindful of how the data on search engine result pages are affecting us, and careful not to grant too much authority to what Google serves up. Next time you think about a neighborhood, give some thought as to how you feel about that neighborhood, and question exactly how those feelings came about. Let me know if you learn something about yourself.
Thanks for coming with me on this journey. It's been quite a lot of fun, albeit a lot of work. I'm working on another research project involving Yelp and landlords, but I think it will be a few months before it sees the light of day - I need quite a break before I take on another series like this one.
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