Trump Says Google Is Rigged – Is It True?

September 13, 2018 - 7 minutes read

Google handles about 90% of the world’s searches every day, making it the clear-cut leader of search engines. Recently, President Donald Trump took to Twitter, his favorite social media platform, to discuss Google search results about himself. Basically, he asserted that Google was rigged.

Many U.S. citizens assumed Trump’s lack of technical skills was the cause of this commotion. But we do know that Google outputs search results according to your previous browsing and search history. So, could Trump be correct?

Trump vs Google

Trump accused Google of abusing its power as the world’s most-used search engine by hiding positive stories about the current administration. Later, the White House released a statement saying it’s looking into regulating Google’s search results to protect free speech online. Unfortunately, there’s a very thin line that the administration could cross by regulating search results: they could violate the First Amendment by doing so.

Now, Trump’s not exactly wrong about the growing influence that tech giants hold over us, our information, and the way we perceive the world. It’s safe to assume that Google’s founders probably didn’t foresee this controversial future for their company when they were just starting out on the outskirts of San Francisco.

But lo and behold, here we are today. Google’s name has become synonymous with terms like ‘search’ and ‘the Internet.’ The company’s also expanded into every sector of disruptive tech imaginable. Let’s take a look under the hood of where this all began — with Google’s search engine.

How Google Works

Google and many of its tech competitors try to keep their product algorithms and back-ends private. The proprietary code written by their developers is closely guarded to prevent another company from stealing any part of it. Google’s algorithm weighs different aspects of your search query to put together an ordered list of search results.

One reason why Google doesn’t release its methods of ranking search results is that there are people making a sizeable living off of SEO (search engine optimization) for smaller websites. If the algorithm’s specifics fell into the wrong hands or got shared on the Internet, spammers and advertisers could infiltrate the search results.

We do know some basic aspects of the algorithm; for example, calculating how many pages backlink to your website will place it higher in search results. These days, if you’re running on HTTPS or you’ve got an Accelerated Mobile Page (AMP) version of your site, you’ll also enjoy a higher ranking. Other factors include the location of the person searching, when the webpage was created, and how often and where keywords appear on a specific page.

Are the Algorithms Unbiased?

For news results, like those that Trump probably was looking for, Google says there are no major differences between how it organizes news results and its search results. But the company admitted that the “freshness” of the page (when it was last updated) are prioritized for news results.

Trump accused Google of holding a bias specifically against right-leaning media. Google responded with a statement saying, “When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds. Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

The statement continues: “Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users’ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

But we know the consequences of fake news and politicized social media. Google made changes to its algorithm after the 2016 Presidential Election, when it found that 0.25% of daily traffic was seeing “intentionally misleading, false or offensive information.” Its goal back then was to show more authoritative content in its search results.

The Information Authority

Looking for authoritative content sounds very manual. And it is. Google uses 10,000 humans around the world to rate the quality of its search results based on expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

The raters’ results inform changes to be made in the algorithm, and it keeps the algorithm lean. But does having humans report on authoritative content introduce a layer of bias into the algorithm?

Yelp thinks so; Google often touts its own reviews over Yelp reviews for the same establishment. That small change is decreasing traffic to Yelp and its competitors. Google argues this change was made because users visit Google for information, not just links. But the EU disagrees: it thinks that Google is giving preferential treatment to its own services, which violates antitrust laws.

More and More Bias

You might think that the 10,000 raters around the world introduce less bias than the engineers at Google. These engineers, who are often white males, don’t see the world from the perspective of an underrepresented minority. In the past, this has shown in their work. For many search queries, Google’s “Autocomplete” feature would return racist and sexist phrases.

Google is well aware that these offensive biases sometimes sneak into search queries. The company is definitely adamant about removing them. But who is actually “rating” these autocompleted queries? It seems this job may fall upon the aforementioned engineers who are probably bogged down with myriad responsibilities to attend to.

Currently, when you search Google for “Donald Trump is”, you get “a Democrat”, “sending you back”, and “a great president”. Do you think Google search results are biased? Do you think the search engine is influenced by politics?

For now, the question of whether Google is rigged or not remains unanswered. But it’s safe to assume that we’ll be hearing more from Trump about this topic soon enough.

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