Never a dull moment for Google: here in Europe tensions are high on several sides, from controversies on competition (such as the new Google Shopping) to those on copyright (as recounted in the Google News France case), but even in the United States the tension against the tech juggernaut are very high. The latest chapter is the direct attack struck through the longest article from Wall Street Journal, that right from the title pledge to reveal “how Google interferes with its search algorithm and changes your results”.

A Wall Street Journal article against Google

The exposé is signed by four different authors – Kirsten Grind, Sam Schechner, Robert McMillan and John West – and reveals that Google uses blacklists, small algorithmic adjustments and an army of contractors to “manipulate what we actually see” into the SERPs. A pretty clear position, the editorial goliath’s one, that does not lack in critics (direct or veiled) for Big G’s search system and, therefore, for the “internet giant” itself.

“Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google, prompting its algorithms to spit out results for hotel rates or breast-cancer treatments or the latest news about President Trump”, write the journalists as opening. These “are arguably the most powerful lines of computer code in the global economy, controlling how much of the world accesses information found on the internet, and the starting point for billions of dollars of commerce.”.

Google interferes with search results

And even though the search engine’s philosophy  – since its launch twenty years ago – is always been about “to provide people with useful info” through and algorithm repeatedly defined as “objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations”, the Wall Street Journal inquiry seems to instead highlight that over the last few years, mainly after 2016, Google has rewired and manipulated search results to a greater extent than formerly admitted by the company and its managers.

Wall Street Journal revelations

Carrying out more than 100 interviews and tests on search results, the journalists pointed out at least six critical points:

  • Google made algorithmic changes to its search results to benefit big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, such as eBay Inc., in open contrast to its public position that it never takes that type of action. According to people familiar with the matter, the company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc.
  • Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information that the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” (that use the Knowledge Graph) 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 in order to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are different 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 edits specifically designed to demote spam sites (or black hat SEO sites) that attempt to manipulate the system so to appear higher in SERP.
  • In auto-complete, the feature that foresees search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to block the most incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, actually 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 in what measure. 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 claims – is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings (we are talking about Google quality raters, whose work is regulated by constantly updated guidelines). Nevertheless, some of the interviewed contractors said Google gave them a feedback to convey what it is considered to be the correct ranking of results, and that they consequently revised their assessments accordingly. This way, contractors’ evaluations as a whole are actually been used to adjust algorithms.

Discrepancies between Google’s results and other search engines’ ones

To support this theory, the WSJ journalists carried out some tests too, comparing for several weeks Google‘s search results with the ones of two rival search engines, Bing e DuckDuckGo: the trial shown wide discrepancies in the way Google managed auto-complete queries and on some organic search results‘ pages.

The words of Google’s spokeswoman Lara Levin

Furthemore, one of the public voices of the Mountain View’s company has also been interviewed, Lara Levin, that as a matter of fact “just” defended both Google’s policy and activity, explaining that their “systems aim to provide relevant results from authoritative sources” and adding that organic searches alone “are not representative of the information made accessible via search.”. Besides that, Levin reiterated the business transparency on the management of quality rater and the algorithm.

The critical examples pointed out by WSJ journalists

The article goes on with the statements of multiple biased voices: specific cases of sites abruptly “penalized” by Google right after an algorithmic update (Dan Baxter’s DealCatcher, for instance); university professors that talk about the need to make algorithm’s criteria transparent (Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard Law School); Dan Gainor, Media Research Center executive (an organ close to the conservative party, lamented several problems with Google) or yet again Kristin Ford, Naral Pro-Choice America’s spokesperson (anti-abortion association, a particularly sensitive theme for the search engine, as well as every one of those health-related topics and YMYL contents).

On Search Engine Land they try to clarify the matter

Basically, nothing new under the sun, and as Greg Sterling keeps on stressing on Search Engine Land the WSJ article itself starts from a biased position, a critical prejudice towards the search engine. The article signed by the SEO magazine takes a distinct stand and blames, in return, the Wall Street Journal of providing “many inaccurate claims” or to have “fundamentally misunderstood what is really happening behind the curtains”.

Another Google source replies to the WSJ article

Greg Sterling hence interviewed another Google’s spokesperson on the matter, that replied to the critics: “We have always been very public and transparent on the topics of this article, such as our Search rater guidelines, the policies on special research features like auto-complete and the correct legal blockings, our neverending work to battle misinformation through Project Owl and the fact that the modifications made on Search will aim to favor users, not business relationships”.

Complete info and old anecdotes

More specifically, from Mountain View comes the reply that the WSJ article “contains multiple old and incomplete anecdotes, many of which not only preceded our processes and current politics, but also gives a very inaccurate impression of how we actually face the building and improving of the research”.

Feedbacks are useful to Google

Going on on his argument, Google’s spokesperson says that the company uses “a reponsible and principled approach to operate modifications, like a strict process of evaluation prior to launch any kind of change, implemented more than a decade ago. To listen to the audience’s feedback is pivotal to enhance the research, so we keep on welcoming them”.

The limitations of the Wall Street Journal’s article against Google

According to Greg Sterling, lastly, the WSJ article surely is a noticeable recounting but it also contains some “dark” notes: specifically, at least one person claimed to be wrongly quoted by the journalists, while another one revealed to have released a long interview then left unused as “disagreeing with the journal’s theory”.

This “does not necessarily means that the WSJ worked with a bias and completely ignored the opposing evidence, nor that everything WSJ says or claims is inaccurate”, clarifies SEJ, but rather than at the moment the “mediatic narrative, in the context of a heavy political climate, is addressing big tech companies”.

The article is being commented on Reddit as well

Many have been the discussions on social medias, and particularly on Reddit there is the comment of an user that maybe rightly sums up the entire matter: “I find very hard to understand how a company could ever interfere with its own product; I surely cannot interfere with mine”, says AHigherFormOfUser quoting the title (and sense) of the article.

Bartturner echoes him, primarily reminding that “Google is a private company: if you do not like how it works, go use some other tool”. According to the redditor, “every single person choosing to use Google could have chosen Bing, that would be also easier with less characters to digit”, jokes prior to end that “if Google owns a 92% quote of the market it is obviously because it must be doing something right, while Microsoft Bing’s quote dropped under 3%”.

Google remains an organic traffic source for websites

And this is the actual point we are more interested in, in the end: Google is the most used search engine in the whole world and a maybe vital source of organic traffic to whoever owns a site and wishes to be visited. As single users we could maybe resort to some kind of alternatives, but from a business perspective we better keep on studying SEO and try to understand how to compete with the mysterious rules of the algorithm with its 200 ranking factors.