A College of Charleston eye tracking experiment revealed college students participating in the study trusted Google's ability to rank results by their true relevance to the query. When participants selected a link from Google's result pages, their decisions were strongly biased towards links higher in position, even if content was less relevant to the search query.
"Despite the popularity of search engines, most users are not aware of how they work and know little about the implications of their algorithms," said Assistant Professor Bing Pan. "When Web sites rank highly in a search engine, they might not be authoritative, unbiased or trustworthy."
The study's findings have long-term implications since such usage affects future rankings, said Pan.
"The way college students conduct online searches promotes a 'rich-get-richer' phenomenon, where popular sites get more hits regardless of relevance," he said. "This further cements the site's high rank, and makes it more difficult for lesser known sites to gain an audience."
The study appears in the online Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.