Filippo Trevisan’s article “Search Engines: From Social Science Objects to Academic Inquiry Tools” was accepted for publication in the inter-disciplinary Internet studies journal First Monday. This piece addresses the challenges and opportunities involved in integrating online tools such as Google Trends in social science research. Publication is scheduled for November or December 2014 – watch this space for a link once the article is available online!
This paper discusses the challenges and opportunities involved in incorporating publicly available search engine data in academic scholarship. 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).