Google, and its parent company Alphabet, has its metaphorical fingers in a hundred different lucrative pies. To untold millions of users, though, “to Google” something has become a synonym for “search,” the company’s original business—a business that is now under investigation as more details about its inner workings come to light.
A coalition of attorneys general investigating Google’s practices is expanding its probe to include the company’s search business, CNBC reports while citing people familiar with the matter.
Attorneys general for almost every state teamed up in September to launch a joint antitrust probe into Google. The investigation is being led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said last month that the probe would first focus on the company’s advertising business, which continues to dominate the online advertising sector.
Paxton said at the time, however, that he’d willingly take the investigation in new directions if circumstances called for it, telling the Washington Post, “If we end up learning things that lead us in other directions, we’ll certainly bring those back to the states and talk about whether we expand into other areas.”
Google’s decades-long dominance in the search market may not be quite as organic as the company has alluded, according to The Wall Street Journal, which published a lengthy report today delving into the way Google’s black-box search process actually works.
Google’s increasingly hands-on approach to search results, which has taken a sharp upturn since 2016, “marks a shift from its founding philosophy of ‘organizing the world’s information’ to one that is far more active in deciding how that information should appear,” the WSJ writes.
Some of that manipulation comes from very human hands, sources told the paper in more than 100 interviews. Employees and contractors have “evaluated” search results for effectiveness and quality, among other factors, and promoted certain results to the top of the virtual heap as a result.
One former contractor the WSJ spoke with described down-voting any search results that read like a “how-to manual” for queries relating to suicide until the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline came up as the top result. According to the contractor, Google soon after put out a message to the contracting firm that the Lifeline should be marked as the top result for all searches relating to suicide so that the company algorithms would adjust to consider it the top result.
Or in another instance, sources told the WSJ, employees made a conscious choice for how to handle anti-vax messaging:
One of the first hot-button issues surfaced in 2015, according to people familiar with the matter, when some employees complained that a search for “how do vaccines cause autism” delivered misinformation through sites that oppose vaccinations.
At least one employee defended the result, writing that Google should “let the algorithms decide” what shows up, according to one person familiar with the matter. Instead, the people said, Google made a change so that the first result is a site called howdovaccinescauseautism.com—which states on its home page in large black letters, “They f—ing don’t.” (The phrase has become a meme within Google.)
The algorithms governing Google’s auto-complete and suggestion functions are also heavily subject to review, the sources said. Google says publicly it doesn’t allow for predictions related to “harassment, bullying, threats, inappropriate sexualization, or predictions that expose private or sensitive information,” and that policy’s not new. The engineer who created the auto-complete function in 2004 gave an example using Britney Spears, who at the time was making more headlines for her marriages than for her music.
The engineer “didn’t want a piece of human anatomy or the description of a sex act to appear when someone started typing the singer’s name,” as the paper describes it. The unfiltered search results were “kind of horrible,” he added.
The company has since maintained an internal blacklist of terms that are not allowed to appear in autocomplete, organic search, or Google News, the sources told the WSJ, even though company leadership has said publicly, including to Congress, that the company does not use blacklists or whitelists to influence its results.
The modern blacklist reportedly includes not only spam sites, which get de-indexed from search, but also the type of misinformation sites that are endemic to Facebook (or, for that matter, Google’s own YouTube).
Google relying on human intervention, and endless tweaks to its algorithms as the WSJ describes, isn’t an antitrust violation. When it uses its trove of data from one operation to make choices that may harm competitors to its other operations, though, that can draw attention.
All that human intervention and algorithmic tweaking also affects advertising and business results, according to the WSJ. Those tweaks “favor big businesses over smaller ones,” the paper writes, “contrary to [Google’s] public position that it never takes that type of action.”
The largest advertisers, including eBay, have received “direct advice” on how to improve their search results after seeing traffic from organic search drop, sources told the paper. Smaller businesses, however, have not been so lucky, being left instead to try to figure out the systems either bringing them traffic or denying them traffic on their own.
Links to Google’s own features and properties also take up an increasingly large percentage of the search results page, the WSJ notes. For example, if you search for one of today’s chart-toppers, such as Beyoncé, you’re greeted with three large Google modules that take up more than half the screen real estate:
More than half of Google searches are now reportedly “no-click” searches, where individuals look only at the page of results and use the snippets on it rather than clicking through to any of the sources from which Google is drawing that information. That kind of use of data, among others, could be considered harmful to competition, since the company is using data collected from competitors to keep users from going to those competitors.
Google, for its part, disputed the WSJ’s findings throughout, telling the paper, “We do today what we have done all along, provide relevant results from the most reliable sources available.”