Is Google Interfering With Their Algorithms To Give You Biased Results?

Is Google Interfering With Their Algorithms To Give You Biased Results

We rely on Google for information every day. From movie times and sports highlights to the best places to shop and eat nearby, to the breaking news that impacts the country, Google supplies some of the most valuable, impactful information worldwide. Google also has a market share of over 85% among internet search engines - I’m guessing that people have told you at one point in your life to ‘Google that’, rather than ‘Bing that’. And one of the primary reasons for this is because most people assume that Google is unbiased and fair. After all, you can find almost anything on Google, with a little bit of digging.

But what if Google isn’t fair? What if it’s breaking its own rules and rigging the search results and elevating preferred websites and businesses over others? As Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook come under increasing scrutiny, their role in our daily lives is further examined, and this is a question that’s increasingly asked. Just recently, the Wall Street Journal makes this case in their article titled How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms And Changes Your Results. So is the world’s largest search engine keeping secrets from you? I believe that it isn’t and that the story was written based on a narrative, without sufficient context or fact-checking in place. Here’s why.

Google Is Transparent About What’s Needed To Rank Well

Let’s get one thing out of the way first - there’s no one thing that any website or business can do to rank on page one of Google. If there were, then any website or business could simply flip that one switch, and manipulate the Google search results to their liking. Instead, Google ‘crawls’ the entire internet on a routine basis to see what’s out there, and what’s being added and updated, so that they can rank all the pages on the internet for different search terms. Unsurprisingly, this is a really complex task! So Google uses over 200 different ranking factors to ensure that the most relevant, valuable, credible and user-friendly pages rank as high as possible. These factors are constantly tweaked and refined.

Google is very open about what it takes to rank well. They offer a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) starter guide, along with countless other resources, guides, videos, tips and suggestions that are publicly available to help business owners and website managers improve their Google rankings. To rank well on Google, in Google’s own words:

  • Give visitors the information they’re looking for
  • Make sure that other sites link to yours
  • Make your site easily accessible

Google does its best to strike a balance between being as transparent as possible, without disclosing ways to manipulate its system. While this will never make everyone happy, there’s much more transparency directly from Google than you might be led to believe.

Google Does Not Favour Big Businesses Over Small Businesses

I work for a marketing agency that helps small businesses grow and improve their online presence, and ranking on page one of Google is a big part of that. If Google was preventing, or even limiting small businesses’ ability to rank well on Google, I’d be out of a job. But they don’t. Instead, they have a number of measures in place to ensure that small businesses, blogs, and websites can rank well across both paid and organic search results. Some of these measures include:

Diversity Updates

If you searched for the ‘best hamburger near me’, and 9 of the 10 search results were for the McDonald’s website, you’d be justifiably furious. And criticism of McDonald’s aside, you’d likely be upset if any search result led to the same website appearing numerous times on page one of Google. Luckily, Google is aware of this and makes efforts to ensure that there’s significant diversity among its top results. In June of this year, for example, an algorithm update tackled this specific issue. Now, the same website will not appear more than twice on page one of Google for a specific search term in the vast majority of situations. Try a few Google searches on your end to see for yourself.

Prioritizing Local Businesses

On a similar note, if you searched for the ‘best hamburger near me’, and 9 of 10 results highlighted big businesses that were located hours away, you’d be justifiably upset. That’s why, particularly for local searches, Google explicitly factors in a business’ distance from the location term used in a search. Even more recently, an explicit location term in a search is not necessary for Google to consider when ranking a nearby business for local search results. The fact is, for many searches, a physical business’ proximity to the user is one of the most important ranking factors. In this sense, businesses small and large compete on an equal playing field.

Google Ads Prioritize Quality Rather Over Advertiser Budget

There are many other ways that Google evens the playing field for businesses of all sizes, but the most direct way it does so is through Google Ads. Google is a $100 billion behemoth, and roughly 70% of their revenue comes from Google Ads - so you’d have to assume that they prioritize the big businesses with deeper pockets, at least when it comes to listing their ads, right? Actually, you would be wrong. Instead, one of the biggest factors that Google considers when ranking competing advertisements is called a Quality Score. This takes into account things like the advertisement’s expected click-through rate, the relevance of each keyword in the ad, and the ad’s landing page experience. While an advertiser’s bid is certainly taken into account, it’s far from the only factor at play when Google ranks the ads that drive the majority of its business. The fact that a big advertiser can bid 5, 10, or even 100 times more than a small business, and still have their ads appear on Google behind that smaller business, is something that certainly frustrates those with more resources available. 

What Does The Journal Article Assert, and How Does It Square Up With The Facts?

If you read the Wall Street Journal article - which I highly recommend - then it probably doesn’t square up with what I’ve told you so far. After all, don’t they provide numerous examples of Google interfering with their own algorithm? In some cases, yes; but in many of these cases, ‘interference’ becomes something far less nefarious when subjected to greater scrutiny. Here’s what I mean, based on the point-form format laid out in the article:

Did Google Really Make Algorithmic Changes On Behalf of a Major Advertiser, eBay?

Read the article carefully here. After making this claim, the article states that eBay also arranged calls and meetings with Google search engineers, and later completed a wider update of its website to make it more ‘useful and relevant’. But as mentioned earlier, Google is extremely transparent about what it takes to rank well on Google. So did Google really update their algorithm specifically to benefit eBay, which is something that Google and many others in the industry deny? Or did they really just share with eBay free, publicly available advice? Especially because eBay was later hit with further ‘downrankings’ that Google didn’t help with, this author’s money is on the latter, rather than the former.

Does Google Regularly Make Behind-The-Scenes Adjustments to Other Information Layered On Top of Basic Search Results?

As Google has evolved over the years, they’ve begun to include more on the search results page than a list of 3 ads and the 10 most relevant search results. These include auto-complete suggestions (which is discussed in more detail below), along with ‘knowledge panels’, ‘featured snippets’ and a ‘People Also Ask’ section. Consider a search for the question “Where is the Eiffel Tower?” You’ll see its address listed prominently, along with a People Also Ask section and a Knowledge Panel to the right. 

These features utilize a knowledge base to give a more clear, direct answer to questions that Google has seen commonly asked on the search engine (with “Where is the Eiffel Tower?” being an example of a commonly asked question, in this case). But it’s important to note that knowledge panels, featured snippets, and the People Also Ask section are features that are unique from Google’s core search algorithm.

Will these features roll out without issue or without the need to be refined? Of course not - no product or technology is perfect right off the bat. So is Google really ‘interfering’ in their own search results - or are they introducing new features and additions that require tweaks and A/B tests - and in some cases, even manual adjustments - before functioning exactly as intended? Again, this author’s money is on the latter.  

Does Google Keep Blacklists to Remove Certain Sites, or Prevent Others From Appearing?

Yes, Google does this, and they’re quite transparent about it. This is another example of ‘interference’ in Google’s own algorithm not being exactly what it sounds like. One example of a ‘blacklist’ Google uses is in the form of SafeSearch, which prevents explicit content from appearing within search results. Another is in the form of the Manual Actions report, through which a person at Google can flag a website with pages that don’t comply with Google’s quality guidelines (which are also available to the public). These manual actions are visible to the website owner as well.

And finally, there are blacklists that are required by Canadian law, to prevent things like violence, abuse, or copyright infringement from appearing on Google search, which the article acknowledges. But in this claim, the term ‘blacklist’ is used to describe multiple things, which under further scrutiny, aren’t nearly as Orwellian as they might sound. 

Does Google Weed Out Inflammatory Auto-Complete Suggestions?

Yes, Google does this, and again they’re quite transparent about it. This follows the narrative that Google is ‘interfering with its search algorithms and changing your results’, but the reasons behind Google doing this are actually quite reasonable when further explored. Google notes that they filter out auto-complete suggestions if they fall under the following criteria:

  • Violent or gory predictions
  • Sexually explicit, vulgar, or profane predictions
  • Hateful predictions about groups
  • Sensitive and disparaging terms associated with named individuals
  • Dangerous predictions

Is it possible that Google has made mistakes in preventing specific auto-complete results from appearing? Of course; no company or system is perfect. But Google argues that it should not be offering its users suggestions that are violent, vulgar, explicit, or dangerous, or those that disparage specific groups or named individuals. Particularly because Google is used by and has an impact on most children growing up in the 21st century, it’s hard to argue with Google’s rationale here. The Journal notes that when searching for queries like “immigrants are”, “Donald Trump is”, or “Joe Biden is”, the Google results are less inflammatory than other search engines. It’s worth asking if this is really a bad thing. 

Do Google Employees and Executives Disagree on How Much To Intervene on Search Results?

It would be surprising if the 100,000+ employees, and the two co-founders at Google didn’t disagree on these important elements. Again, this seems like more of a narrative in search of a story than the other way around.

So Where Does This Leave Us? 

If you take one thing away from this article, it shouldn’t be that the Wall Street Journal has some sort of vendetta against Google - they do not. And it shouldn’t be that Google is without its flaws either, because there are certain things that it can improve upon. Instead, keep in mind the following. I spoke about the fact that Google does not favour big businesses over smaller ones. Does that mean that businesses of all sizes appear just as often on Google? Unfortunately, probably not. Big businesses have more resources to invest in their online presence, and in digital marketing. They can afford to update their websites more frequently, and with more content, and they can often take advantage of new features and technological improvements quickly. Similarly, I spoke about the fact that Google does not create algorithm updates or blacklists to weed out specific websites and companies.

Does this mean that Google algorithm updates won’t hurt specific websites? Unfortunately, no. When Google made an update to prioritize mobile-friendly sites, websites that were older, non-responsive, or not mobile-friendly suffered the consequences. When Google announced a broad core update in August 2018, websites in the health and medical industries disproportionately suffered. Algorithm updates will both benefit, and harm specific websites. A good business strategy focuses on multiple channels, and no website is entitled to consistent traffic from Google forever. 

But these hard truths - bigger businesses outspending smaller ones, updated technology harming specific industries - go beyond Google. An analysis of one search term over 17 days isn’t sufficient to make broader insinuations against Google, nor is misquoting the only named source in the article. On Google, considerations like diversity, location, and user experience make for valuable, credible and legitimate search results. And this means that you can trust the Google search results because the free, fair expression is alive and well on the platform.

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