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The Wall Street Journal has reported on allegations that Google has modified search algorithms for numerous reasons, including favoring large corporations, blacklisting, and a anti-conservative bias.
Penned by Kirsten Grind, Sam Schechner, Robert McMillan, and John West (and subsequently reported by Zero Hedge); the article discusses the findings of an investigation into Google from over 100 interviews and their own testing of Google’s search engine. They allege “Google’s evolving approach marks a shift from its founding philosophy of “organizing the world’s information,” to one that is far more active in deciding how that information should appear.” They allege the following:
- “Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.
- Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete 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.
- Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.
- In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.
- Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism.
- To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.”
The report then laid out Google’s biases. As stated in the first bullet point, Google’s search results for shopping tended to support larger companies to smaller ones- under the belief the larger company would be more likely to have what the consumer wanted. One commentor on the article (James West) alleges Google’s practices have harmed his business
“Our company, an independent publisher of financial coverage of small cap Canadian companies, has routinely been the target of what can only be explained as “manual downgrades” in Google search results. Our tests indicate a persistent pattern where Google is awarding search visibility increasingly to large US media enterprises, even where ours is local to the issue, and more detailed.
Google’s founders Page and Brin have built the company to thwart contact from its users, and now, as evidenced by WSJ’s coverage, there are widespread issues with Google’s monopoly on search. Thanks to WSJ’s coverage, we will commence a request process with Canada’s competition bureau to investigate Google for anti-competitive practices.
This company needs to be more closely regulated, as they are systematically eviscerating entire industries but reserving the bad behaviour [sic] it claims to police for its own financial gain.”
The second major bias was against US conservative websites and users. Many outlets and users have alleged this, extending to YouTube- with allegations of demonetizing news-focused channels by conservatives, and removing them from search results.
Google’s autocomplete function also allegedly completed results for liberal politicians in a positive manner (with no mention of controversies) and conservative politicians in a negative manner (including controversies yet to be proven as true). This was supposedly quiet prevalent during the 2016 US Election.
Along with increasing dissatisfaction with how Google moderate the platform, and the numerous “adpocalpyses” bringing about harsher terms of service, some feel conservatives are more focused on than others. One outlet, PragerU has even taken legal action against Google, though they have struggled to win a case.
Later in the article, the Wall Street Journal alleges Google had kept a political blacklist, despite testifying to the contrary to the US Congress.
“Google’s first blacklists date to the early 2000s, when the company made a list of spam sites that it removed from its index, one of those people said. This means the sites wouldn’t appear in search results.
Engineers known as “maintainers” are authorized to make and approve changes to blacklists. It takes at least two people to do this; one person makes the change, while a second approves it, according to the person familiar with the matter.
The Journal reviewed a draft policy document from August 2018 that outlines how Google employees should implement an anti-misinformation blacklist aimed at blocking certain publishers from appearing in Google News and other search products. The document says engineers should focus on “a publisher misrepresenting their ownership or web properties” and having “deceptive content”—that is, sites that actively aim to mislead—as opposed to those that have inaccurate content.
“The purpose of the blacklist will be to bar the sites from surfacing in any Search feature or news product sites,” the document states.”
In spite of this, non-conservatives feel their political beliefs have also been restricted on Google. World Socialist Website reports that in 2017, updates to Google’s search algorithm resulted in the “13 leading socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites” suffering a drop in traffic from 67% to 19%.
The Wall Street Journal then alleges preferential treatment to advertisers. “Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results, a perk not available to businesses with no contacts at Google, according to people familiar with the matter.In some cases, that help included sending in search engineers to explain a problem, they said.” They also claim eBay successfully lobbied Google to reverse their decision that had demoted the search results of specific eBay pages.
Naked Capitalism also alleges advertisers had influence over Google’s newsfeed, to prevent their adverts appearing near “controversial” stories with headlines featuring the words “Dead”, “Shooting”, “Murder”, “Gun”, “Bomb”, “Attack”, and even “Trump”.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal discussed how it struggled to prevent Google’s perceived disfavor of paywalled and subscription based outlets, such as itself.
“(The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp, which has complained publicly about Google’s moves to play down news sites that charge for subscriptions. Google ended the policy after intensive lobbying by News Corp and other paywalled publishers. More recently, News Corp has called for an “algorithm review board” to oversee Google, Facebook and other tech giants. News Corp has a commercial agreement to supply news through Facebook, and Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services. Google’s Ms. Levin and News Corp declined to comment.)”
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