Google has made a concerted effort to make everyone believe search engine manipulation is just another conspiracy theory. It was CEO Sundar Pichai who swore under oath to Congress that “we don’t manually intervene on any particular search result” in any regard, declaring his site operates above board without “some little man sitting behind the curtain”. A new investigation published by The Wall Street Journal shows there is behind the scenes manipulation after all.
After testing Google’s algorithm and conducting over 100 interviews, the WSJ team found evidence that Google has intervened in its own search engine results to demote spam sites, maintain blacklists and favor the search rankings of both their fellow big tech colleagues and major advertisers such as Amazon, Facebook, and eBay, all the while claiming there’s neutrality in their practices. While these findings may add fuel to fire of conservatives crying censorship against Google and its video site YouTube — both of which currently facing a 50-state anti-trust investigation — the concern should be focused on the actual deceptive gatekeeping rather than the potential establishment bias.
“Google’s algorithms are subject to regular tinkering from executives and engineers who are trying to deliver relevant search results, while also pleasing a wide variety of powerful interests and driving its parent company’s more than $30 billion in annual profit,” the report found. “Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged. Those actions often come in response to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups and governments around the world. They have increased sharply since the 2016 election and the rise of online misinformation.”
The findings are broken down into six key areas of interest:
- Google made algorithmic changes to search results to favor big businesses over smaller ones, the biggest example being eBay, contrary to public positions which claim their relationship does not affect the results, according to sources familiar with the companies’ dealings.
- Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to information beyond basic search results. The report simply find these changes to be based on “autocomplete suggestions, boxes called ‘knowledge panels’ and ‘featured snippets,’ and news results which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.”
- Google maintain blacklists to “remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results”. The report acknowledges these block sites aren’t those required of removal by domestic or foreign law, “such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement”, nor are they “changes designed to demote spam sites” or “attempt to game the system to appear higher in results”. These are regular sites being editorialized out of the market.
- The auto-complete feature is run on tweaked algorithms and blacklists by Google’s engineers to “weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects”, such as abortion, immigration or “inflammatory results” on high-profile topics. It’s worth noting that according to another study from psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein, Google was previously caught filtering auto-search content for Hillary Clinton over her rivals Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, showing how this particular practice does maintain bias.
- Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, often signaled disagreement over the company’s role in using intervention within search results. The report found that lower employees can also push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism, though the process and likelihood weren’t given enough detail.
- Finally, the report found Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors with the sole purpose of assessing the quality of the algorithms’ rankings post-alteration. Several contractors told the WSJ that Google would give feedback to workers to “convey what is considered to be the correct ranking of results”, revising their assessments to reach desired results. These aren’t manipulations based on unaccountable employee errors, but rather a culture of curation normalized within Google.
Google soon provided a statement claiming there’s simply nothing to see.
“We have been very public and transparent around the topics covered in this article, such as our Search rater guidelines, our policies for special features in Search like Autocomplete and valid legal removals, our work to combat misinformation through Project Owl and the fact that the changes we make to Search are aimed at benefiting users, not commercial relationships,” the company states. “This article contains a number of old, incomplete anecdotes, many of which not only predated our current processes and policies but also give a very inaccurate impression of how we approach building and improving Search. We take a responsible and principled approach to making changes, including a rigorous evaluation process before launching any change — something we started implementing more than a decade ago.”
This, however, is a misrepresentation of the findings. The report specifically states that “Google made more than 3,200 changes to its algorithms in 2018, up from more than 2,400 in 2017 and from about 500 in 2010”, giving readers both a decade’s worth of context while also focusing on their modern practices. The methodology was also released to the public, relying purely on current methods to assess the current state of Google’s algorithms. If Google wants to rely on the poor excuse of “sure we’ve done bad behaviour, but now we’ve changed”, they’re gonna have to condemn behaviour that’s being conducted right now as we speak.
“Algorithms are effectively recipes in code form, providing step-by-step instructions for how computers should solve certain problems,” the report clarifies. “They drive not just the internet, but the apps that populate phones and tablets. Algorithms determine which friends show up in a Facebook user’s news feed, which Twitter posts are most likely to go viral and how much an Uber ride should cost during rush hour as opposed to the middle of the night. They are used by banks to screen loan applications, businesses to look for the best job applicants and insurers to determine a person’s expected lifespan.” If these tools are not some of the most important being used today, manipulation to purely suit company interests should concern everyone.
We urge readers to read the full report to better understand the extent of the company’s actions. In turn, lawyers and lawmakers conducting a nation-wide anti-trust case against Google should also use these findings in their big tech crackdown. According to another report from CNBC News, the 50 state attorneys general are already planning to expand their investigation into Google’s search practices and Android businesses, specifically investigating political bias, online misinformation and anti-competitive practices to hurt consumers. Using these results to establish their monopoly status and predatory alteration tactics would go a long way towards some actual internet accountability.
Thank you for reading. This article was published for TrigTent, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary. Bailey Steen is a journalist, editor, and designer from Australia. You can read their work on Medium and previous publications such as Janks Reviews and Newslogue.
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