Search engines offer users vast and impressive amounts of information, available with a speed and convenience few people could have imagined one decade ago. Their capabilities are expanding practically by the day. Soon it will seem routine to be able to search the contents of vast libraries of books; to find selected portions of video streams or audio recordings; to benefit from personalized searches that remember a user’s preferences and keep track of changing geographical locations. Audio searching and search results will be available for the blind; “implicit searching” will anticipate users’ queries and have answers ready.

Today’s internet users are very positive about what search engines already do, and they feel good about their experiences when searching the internet. They say they are comfortable and confident as searchers and are satisfied with the results they find. They trust search engines to be fair and unbiased in returning results. And yet, people know little about how engines operate, or about the financial tensions that play into how engines perform their searches and how they present their search results. Furthermore, searchers largely don’t notice or understand or discern the different kinds of search results that are being served up to them.

This odd situation, in which a growing population of users relies on technology most of them don’t understand, highlights the responsibility placed on search engine companies. They are businesses, in many cases extremely successful ones – but their effects on society are far more than merely commercial. One unexpected implication of our study is that search engines are attaining the status of other institutions – legal, medical, educational, governmental, journalistic – whose performance the public judges by unusually high standards, because the public is unusually reliant on them for principled performance.