Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google Search, prompting its algorithms to spit out results.
Google said it fine-tuned its algorithms more than 3,200 times in 2018, up from more than 2,400 in 2017 and from about 500 in 2010. The tech giant said 15 percent of its current queries are for words or combinations of words that the company has never seen before, putting more demands on engineers to make sure the algorithms deliver useful results.
But critics say Google is doing more than fine-tuning its algorithms. It’s manipulating them in a way that alters search results. In this way, Google makes available only what political and business elites want you to see. In essence, these actions could be called “redlining” the internet — controlling where you go and what you see online.
By manipulating algorithms, Google can hide controversial subjects and favor big business, according to a new report in the Wall Street Journal.
Google is also accused of manipulating autocomplete results — a feature that predicts what you are going to type — to remove sensitive subjects such as abortion and immigration.
Google has denied manipulating Google Search results for years, but the Wall Street Journal investigation found that it manipulated search algorithms in some “worrying ways, including prioritizing large businesses over smaller ones, removing autocomplete results … and even outright blacklisting some websites.”
Here are seven things to know about political and business elites manipulating Google Search results and “redlining” the internet.
1. Big business favored
Small businesses might not have a chance to rise to the top of a Google search. Big business seems to be favored. In one such change to Google’s search algorithms, the service guided search users to more prominent businesses over lesser-known ones, the Wall Street Journal reported. This reportedly helped to boost Amazon’s store in search results, Business Insider reported.
2. Sensitive subjects scrubbed
According to the Journal’s report, autocomplete search results for sensitive subjects were replaced with safer results than those found on competing search engines like Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.
“During the election cycle, I couldn’t find a picture of Biden speaking at Goldman Sachs. I trusted my memory & went to DuckDuckGo. It had been ‘scrubbed’ & WIPED from Google, apparently during the Presidential election cycle,” tweeted Moguldom CEO Jamarlin Martin.
President Joe Biden seen speaking at a Goldman Sachs event might have been seen as him schmoozing with Wall Street. There wasn’t much publicity around the event.
3. Professionals, politicians and shady figures benefit from search engine manipulation for reputation management
Executives, doctors, criminals, and even a Russian oligarch all benefited from search engine manipulation campaigns to suppress negative content, according to a BuzzFeed News investigation. In one case, the search results for Ian Leaf, a famous fraudster from the U.K. who also goes by Ian Andrews, are being influenced by an Ian Leaf persona that claims to be an expert in fraud prevention. This manipulation ensures that positive content appears when people search for information about Leaf and his crimes.
Andy Beal, a consultant and author of books about SEO and online reputation management, told BuzzFeed News that most reputation projects involve “using search engine optimization to try and push negative pages further down Google [results].”
“If you’re trying to get positive things to show up in Google, those positive things need to be legitimate, be real.”
4. Brands and ad agencies take advantage of Google Search manipulation
Famous brands and ad agencies also try to use Google search manipulation for their benefit. Outdoor lifestyle brand North Face and its agency, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, boasted about successfully ”hacking” Wikipedia entries to replace top Google Image results with product placement shots. North Face later apologized, The Verge reported.
5. Google’s ‘knowledge panel’
Google Search results listings can also be manipulated for propaganda. There is a feature of the Google Search engine allows users to alter search results in a way that could be used to promote political propaganda, oppressive views, or promote fake news.
The feature is known as the “knowledge panel” — a box that usually appears at the right side of the search results, generally highlighting the main search result for a particular query, ZD Net reported.
These knowledge panels can be hijacked, sometimes in a way that pushes legitimate search results way down the page, highlighting an incorrect result and making it look legitimate, according to Wietze Beukema, a member of PwC’s Cyber Threat Detection & Response team.
“While sharing search result page URLs for queries like ‘Who invented sliced bread’ with an incorrect knowledge panel passes as an innocent prank, sharing malformed URLs for search queries like ‘Who’s responsible for 9/11‘ … can have serious consequences in today’s complicated political climate. Just imagine the damage you can do with manipulated Google URLs like these,” ZD Net reported.
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6. Google uses blacklists
Google uses blacklists, algorithm tweaks and hired contractors to shape what users see, manipulating Google Search. “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,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
7. Auto-complete helps in manipulating Google Search
Auto-complete is a 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, The Wall Street Journal reported.
On top of this, Google employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism, helping to manipulate Google Search.
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