WSJ: Google actively blacklists, interferes to control search outcomes

Aha, readers will say, we were right! And we were right about Google’s interference in its search results, according to a blockbuster investigative report from the Wall Street Journal this morning. Contrary to their public claims, Google actively blacklists sites, interferes with its algorithms to cook search results, and boosts big ad buyers at the expense of smaller companies. Guilty as charged.

Although, to be fair, some of this might actually be the result of listening to their customers:

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, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found. …

More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:

• 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 Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter. …

• 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.

Some of this has no excuse except for Google’s own commercial and political purposes. There’s no good reason for Google’s searches to favor its advertisers in results that are displayed outside of their labeled ads. Doing that without disclosures, and especially by corrupting the algorithms they claim are impervious to bias, exposes them as unreliable and undermines their credibility on other claims of beneficent oversight.

At least some of this political interference is also inexplicable except out of institutional bias, although not all of it, which we’ll get to next. Google’s engineers are now determining what constitutes acceptable discourse on abortion and immigration? Who appointed them to regulate that debate? Why not just allow consumers to get honest search results and make that determination for themselves? Either they want to control the Overton window on debates or Google thinks their customers are idiots. I suspect it’s both.

However, we can’t honestly lay all of this on Google, considering the political and commercial environment of the last few years. One result of all the poisonous Russia-collusion hysteria was to have lawmakers threaten to rip tech giants apart unless they prevented the next round of Jesus-armwrestles-Hillary memes from damaging our psyches. And it wasn’t just the lawmakers either, but lots and lots of Americans who blamed the merry-prankster campaign on platforms like Google and Facebook, and who demanded that they become content editors and gatekeepers.

When your market makes those kinds of demands and lawmakers make those kinds of threats, this is what happens. Google could have been honest about it, which would have at least allowed us to have a debate over just how much influence we allow tech giants to control our national debate. Given all of the other manipulations the WSJ has uncovered and corroborated in their probe, we can probably guess why Google wanted anything but an honest conversation on those issues.

The moral of this story seems to be: For honesty and integrity … search elsewhere other than Google.