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Google reportedly manipulates its search results way more than it wants you to believe

Published Nov 17th, 2019 2:08PM EST
Google search results
Image: Don Ryan/AP/Shutterstock

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As an antitrust investigation led by state attorneys general expands from advertising to take a closer look at Google’s search practices, which we told you about on Thursday, the results of a newspaper investigation published on Friday may add even more fuel to that fire. Specifically, it’s a report that probes all the ways the search giant manipulates the results that you see — in ways that contradict Google’s insistence that it doesn’t tip the scales — and takes a closer look at blacklists and ways that Google favors big businesses over small ones in search results, among other tweaks the company’s engineers make behind the scenes.

The investigation was published by The Wall Street Journal and based on more than 100 interviews, as well as what the Journal said was its own testing of Google Search. The findings are likely to provide more ammunition for critics such as those on the right who believe the company lets left-leaning political bias influence its search results, as well as small businesses that don’t rank as highly as companies like eBay and Amazon.

Among the findings, even though Google says in a company blog post that “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page,” the Journal implies the company does exactly that. Often in response to pressure from governments worldwide, businesses, or a variety of interest groups.

According to the Journal’s sources, Google has also manipulated its search algorithms to favor big businesses — and that in at least one instance, did so to favor eBay, a major Google advertiser.

Among other findings of the investigation:

  • Autocomplete search results have sometimes “sanitized” sensitive subjects in a way not seen on competing search engines.
  • Google engineers also sometimes make changes to search-related information that gets fed into places like Google knowledge panels where those engineers aren’t as limited by company policies about what they can change.
  • In the early 2000s, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin reportedly clashed over how to handle spam and hate-fueled content. Page wanted the company to actively police it, while Brin wanted it left alone. Brin, the son of Jewish parents, also at one point decided to allow anti-Semitic sites to rank in search results, while Page at one point told a Google executive that Brin was going to “ruin” the company with his approach.

Google released a statement about the Journal article that reads, in part: “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.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.