After you type a query into Google, you might imagine a digital algorithm sifting through results and churning out the best answers, ranked by relevance and quality. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But despite the fact that Google employees created and refined the search engine’s algorithm, most people assume that Google has taken a “hands-off” approach when it comes to search. In reality, according to a new study, humans play a bigger role than you might think and U.S. investigators are taking notice. Teaming up with 50 other attorneys general, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton has begun a landmark investigation into Google’s online dominance, focusing on online advertising. In addition, sparked by concerns about fairness and competition in the markets within which Google operates, the U.S. Justice Department has also begun an antirust probe that is expected to focus on Google’s search policies and current practices. It’s the first major antirust action against Google in about a decade.
These inquiries raise a lot of questions: Is Google search fair and unbiased? Can consumers trust the search engine to deliver impartial, organic results? Does Google put its competitors at a disadvantage? One thing is for sure: these investigations will undoubtedly provide new insights into how Google search works.
Is Google Search Fair and Unbiased?
Since it was founded in 1998, Google has maintained that its results are objective. Whether talking with customers, meeting with outside groups, or even testifying before Congress, Google has claimed that its algorithms are unbiased – while also refusing to reveal how the algorithms work (ostensibly to ensure that no one takes advantage of the system). Earlier this year, a Google representative stated in a company blog post, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page. Rather, we have automated systems that are able to quickly find content in our index – from the hundreds of billions of pages we have indexed by crawling the web – that are relevant to the words in your search.”
But due to Google’s online dominance and the two investigations mentioned above, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently decided to investigate how Google shapes its search results. The findings were published in a detailed article entitled How Google Interferes with Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results, which revealed that “over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged.”
How Do Google Employees Tamper with Results?
It’s time to acknowledge that Google isn’t an impartial computer; it’s a company responding to the pressures of the market as well as interest groups, governments, and other outside pressures. According to the WSJ’s investigation, the interference of Google employees has impacted search results in the following ways:
- Boosts Big Businesses: The changes made to Google’s algorithms have benefited big businesses more than small businesses. eBay received a boost from Google and other websites, including Amazon and Facebook, may have directly benefited as well.
- Shrinks Search Results: As we’ve previously discussed on this blog, Google has begun presenting more and more information on search results pages. These features, like knowledge panels and featured snippets, as well as auto-complete suggestions and news results do not have to comply with the same company policies as the search results – so engineers are constantly tweaking them.
- Maintains Blacklists: Although Google stated in congressional testimony that it doesn’t use blacklists (according to Google, this was in reference to targeting political groups), WSJ’s research disputes this. Google keeps internal backlists to remove particular sites from search results and to prevent particular sites from popping up in response to certain types of queries. Blacklists impact organic search, Google News, knowledge panels, and more. These blacklists are distinct from the ones kept by Google to comply with domestic or foreign laws (such as those blocking pages featuring child abuse or copyright infringement) and the ones created to penalize spam sites.
- Tailors Auto-Complete: Auto-complete may return some pretty odd suggestions, but Google tries to ensure that it doesn’t produce controversial results when someone begins typing in certain words, such as those related to politically-heated topics like immigration and abortion. According to its policy, Google removes “sensitive and disparaging remarks” from the auto-complete algorithm.
- Relies on Contractors: As you might have guessed, Google is constantly evaluating the quality of its search results. But did you know that it hires low-paid contractors to complete this work? And, according to a former contractor, that it sometimes communicates to these contractors what it considers to be the “correct ranking” of results? So much for impartiality! The collective findings of the contractors are measured and used to adjust the algorithms.
- Sparks Internal Debate: Google employees (including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin) disagree on how much human intervention is appropriate in Google search. But if an employee feels strongly that certain search results ought to be adjusted, they can speak up about it.
Why Is Google Intervening in Search Results?
When Google employees adjust search results produced by the algorithms, they’re typically doing so for one of four reasons:
To Benefit Users
In some situations, Google is changing search results to better serve its users. For example, if someone searches “how to commit suicide,” the first thing that pops up is a box with a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that includes a phone number, an option to online chat, and the message “You’re not alone. Confidential help is available for free.” I think we can all agree that this adjustment to the results page is invaluable.
Another change intended to benefit users occurred in 2015, when an employee complained that the query “how do vaccines cause autism” produced many anti-vaccine search results promoting misinformation. Google decided to adjust the algorithm so that the first result was howdovaccinescauseautism.com, a simple website that answers its address’s question at the top of the homepage: “They f–king don’t.”
And in 2017, Google instructed the contractors who review search results to give low-quality ratings to any websites “created with the sole purpose of promoting hate or violence against a group of people.” This was later expanded to include any pages that promote hate or violence.
To Benefit Alphabet
Google sends approximately six percent of searches to websites owned by Alphabet, its parent company. These websites and services include YouTube, Google Maps, Google Images, Android, Blogger, and many more. Although six percent is relatively small and this percentage hasn’t increased much in the past few years, it’s certainly a concern that Google may be using its role as a search engine to benefit companies that fall under the umbrella of Alphabet. In the European Union, Google has already been fined more than $9 billion in the past three years for anticompetitive practices, including allegedly using Google search to favor its own products.
To Benefit Certain Businesses or Groups
Sometimes Google adjusts its search algorithms to help certain businesses or groups.
Remember how we said that Google employees sometimes disagree about how often and how much to interfere with search results? One example of this is that Google’s engineers once decided to adjust the algorithm to benefit bigger businesses, arguing that users “were more likely to get what they wanted at larger outlets.” Amazon, for example, was given a big boost by this change. Employees fought back and forth about the adjustment for years.
Additionally, Google has provided direct advice to some large advertisers hoping to boost their organic rankings. If a company is having an issue with an algorithm update, one of Google’s engineers may be willing to talk them through what’s happening. And according to one insider, Google indexes some big sites more frequently to help them rank more often. For example, once, after eBay’s search traffic took a nosedive, the online marketplace lobbied Google and was rewarded with improved rankings on some pages and advice for how to effectively revise other pages. Smaller businesses don’t get such valuable perks from Google.
Google also has appointed executives (one for conservative groups, one for liberal groups) to handle complaints that the algorithms are biased toward one political group or the other. These disputes have increased since the 2016 election, as have demands from the U.S. government and governments around the world. Many of the governmental requests are regarding websites that the authorities claim break laws. The government that most frequently demands the removal of websites from Google search is Russia, which requested about 255,000 removals last year. Some Google employees feel it’s important to comply with Russia’s requests if they reflect the laws of the country, while other employees feel Google shouldn’t cooperate with Russia’s requests as one of its goals as a company is to increase access to information.
To Protect Search Results from Manipulators
Google has always had to fight off spammers hoping to skew search results. Over the years, the search engine has adjusted its algorithm countless times to prevent spammers from ranking highly and ensure that high-quality results rise to the top. Following company guidelines, algorithms are subjected to “a grueling process called the ‘launch committee'” before a ranking algorithm may be changed.
Our country is currently in the midst of a crisis of misinformation, and Google aims to protect itself against any businesses, groups, or individuals hoping to manipulate search results for their own gain. According to an internal investigation conducted at Google in 2016, between one-tenth and one-quarter of a percent of search queries produced results that included at least some misinformation or low-quality results (source). Google created a team to combat this issue, and they adjusted the factors used to rank pages, focusing on factors that conveyed “authoritativeness.” After that internal investigation in 2016, Google became more relaxed about the idea of humans intervening in search results. The practice has become more and more common. However, Google has not taken an aggressive approach when it comes to misinformation because it says its role is to “index” content, not to “host” it.
Are Big Changes on the Horizon?
First, we encourage everyone to head over to the Wall Street Journal to read the full contents of the article, which is packed with information. Whether you’re an SEO enthusiast, a business owner, or just an average Joe who relies on Google every day, it’s interesting to learn more about what’s going on behind the scenes of the world’s supreme search engine.
But big change may be on the horizon for Google. As Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, leader of the antitrust investigation, stated, “We’re prepared for whatever the right thing to do is for consumers.” He also claimed that nothing is off limits in his bipartisan investigation. If the investigations establish that Google is unfairly manipulating online search, a major punishment – with widespread ramifications – may follow.
For its part, Google denied or disputed many aspects of the WSJ’s report and stated, “We do today what we have done all along, provide relevant results from the most reliable sources available.”
Ranking webpages is and will always be subjective. Who’s to say which webpages are best? Google is allowed to adjust its algorithms and allow humans to intervene in search results, but because Google hasn’t been very open about when or why it changes its algorithms, it’s able to maintain the illusion that it isn’t influenced by external pressure. But it clearly is. Politics and cultural trends can shift Google’s opinions regarding search results, and businesses and advertisers sometimes nudge Google to make changes.
But is Google actively harming its competitors with its algorithms? Are smaller businesses being left in the lurch? As zero-click searches skyrocket and Google takes up more and more on-page real estate, is Google unlawfully overtaking the online world?
Or is Google simply improving the search experience for users by providing more high-quality, relevant search results?
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