WSJ report about Google search manipulation gets a lot wrong

WSJ report about Google search manipulation gets a lot wrong

November 15, 2019 Off By esential1@

No one would argue that Google is a pure, shining force for good in the world. But neither do we agree that it’s the corrupt entity portrayed in a highly charged Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that appeared Friday.

Search Engine Land will offer more perspective on the WSJ article in separate pieces next week. However, upon initial review of the assertions, and discussion with members of the SEO community including several people interviewed for the story, we believe that many of the claims are inaccurate or misunderstand what’s going on behind the scenes.

The WSJ accuses Google of manipulating search results to appease advertisers and favor big business in results over smaller ones, while suppressing controversial auto-complete suggestions and engaging in capricious blacklisting of sites. The WSJ says it conducted “more than 100 interviews” and its own comparative analysis of search results.

The WSJ “tested 17 words and phrases that covered a range of political issues and candidates, cultural phrases and names in the news . . . during [a] 17-day cycle” and compared them to results on Bing and DuckDuckGo. Here are some of the claims made in the article:  

  • Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones.
  • Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results.
  • Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results.
  • In auto-complete . . . Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects

Asked to comment on the story, a Google spokesperson said, “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. 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. Listening to feedback from the public is a critical part of making Search better, and we continue to welcome the feedback.”

In one example of Google’s alleged manipulation of search results, the WSJ reports that Google made ranking concessions “on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay” following a fraught negotiation between the companies after an algorithm change demoted eBay pages. The implication is Google was willing to change the SERP to get eBay’s money back. There’s likely a lot more to this than presented in the WSJ piece, but eBay has in the past pulled ad spending on Google and the latter hasn’t made ranking concessions.

The WSJ piece is clearly informed by considerable reporting. But in at least one case an individual said he was misquoted in the article and another person who was extensively interviewed, but who disagreed with the thesis of the article, was not quoted.

This is not to say that the WSJ went in with a bias and ignored contrary evidence or that everything the WSJ says or claims is inaccurate. But the larger media narrative, in the context of a highly charged political climate, has turned against big tech companies. And while much of the criticism of big technology companies is justified, we believe WSJ has not provided an entirely accurate discussion of what goes on behind the scenes.

We’ll dive deeper into that next week.


About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He previously held leadership roles at LSA, The Kelsey Group and TechTV. Follow him Twitter or find him on LinkedIn.