Monday, November 18, 2019

How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results

Kirsten Grind et al. (via Sam Schechner, Hacker News):

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.


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.


To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.


In one change hotly contested within Google, engineers opted to tilt results to favor prominent businesses over smaller ones, based on the argument that customers were more likely to get what they wanted at larger outlets. One effect of the change was a boost to Amazon’s products, even if the items had been discontinued, according to people familiar with the matter.

Barry Schwartz:

The truth is, I spoke to a number of these Wall Street Journal reporters back in both March and April about this topic, and it was clear then that they had little knowledge about how search worked. Even a basic understanding of the difference between organic listings (the free search results) and the paid listings (the ads in the search results) eluded them. They seemed to have one goal: to come up with a sensational story about how Google is abusing its power and responsibility for self gain.

Google is not certainly perfect, but almost everything in the Wall Street Journal report is incorrect.


I know they interviewed me a couple of times, and I told you how that went above. But we reached out to Glenn Gabe, an SEO industry veteran who works extensively with companies that have been impacted by search algorithm updates, who was quoted in the piece. Gabe told us that not only were his conversations with the paper off-the-record but also that he was misquoted. Gabe said he reached out to the reporter who apologized and offered to fix the quote. But later he was told that the quote had to stay as is.

It’s worrisome that something so important is a black box. I’ve been seeing smoke about stuff like this for years, but solid information is hard to come by, and no one has yet put it together in a way that shows there really is a fire. It seems that this report doesn’t, either.


7 Comments RSS · Twitter

[…] Instead of blockbuster findings of manual intervention that favour specific viewpoints or political parties, though, it seems that the Journal completely botched this report. Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land (via Michael Tsai): […]

One of the claims that doesn't appear to be refuted is Google's use of contractors to provide feedback on search result quality. Are these contractors indeed "low-paid"?

This situation reminds me a bit of Apple/Amazon/Facebook relying on contractors for quality review. As with those companies, it strikes me as odd how Google would leave such a critical QA function to possibly-underpaid contractors. Certainly there's been no shortage of awful/harmful answer boxes and prominent results for certain queries, so it seems as if the search engine could benefit from some additional investment.

If I didn't know better, I'd think that the journalism side of the WSJ had been enlisted to provide support for manipulative conservative conspiracy theories that tech companies are biased against them. It's a new spin on the old they've been telling for more than half a century about the "liberal media" in order to cow them.

Or maybe I do know better...

>Or maybe I do know better...

Yeah. I mean, the whole article basically comes down to "the company that generates the search results generates the search results." You don't say. But good job making it sound really nefarious.

I don't know what has happened to Google, but I feel like in the past 3-5 years the search results have become absolutely terrible! Like I used to be able to search for something fairly specific and find tons of relevant sites with the exact information that I needed -- often personal blogs, niche indie sites, all mixed in with well-known professional/legacy publications.

Now it's like, all these fake sites... stuff with URLs like that seemingly offer reviews of different things, but almost NONE of them are actual reviews, just a pseudo-review that rehashes bullet points from the manufacturer's product page with no clear metric of how Product X was selected as the best of their rundown. It's such a joke. Link after link after link of junk in the Google search results. Actual interesting sites run by real people are totally buried.

This even extends to simple stuff like finding a recipe for an obscure, regional dish, where you really want to find someone who has cooked it dozens of times, or has compared several different recipes, to see which one is the best. I _know_ that the content is out there somewhere, but the results only show the top recipe sites (AllRecipes, Food Network, etc). The only blogs that are ever shown are the super popular commercialized ones of people who have probably been on Oprah, like the Pioneer Woman.

And the sad thing is, I can't say that Bing or Duck are any better. I actually sometimes get much better results from Yandex (a Russian search engine).

At risk of sounding like an old fart, this is just another example of how things are changing in the tech world for the worse. Really, it's sad that "kids these days" don't know what they're missing. The internet was so much more interesting before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and corporate America came along and ruined it.

2005 -- peak internet?

>I feel like in the past 3-5 years the search results have become absolutely terrible!

Yeah, the fake reviews sites have definitely become a major problem. OTOH, every time I accidentally use Bing, I'm reminded of how amazing Google still is in comparison.

Sören Nils Kuklau

I mean, the whole article basically comes down to “the company that generates the search results generates the search results.”

Which, given the absurd amount of market share Google search enjoys (in part due to how good it is), does give some credence to keeping it under tight antitrust control. Here you have one private company controlling the flow of information for billions of people…

Leave a Comment