On Nov. 16, The Wall Street Journal published an investigation, “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results” (paywalled, but your library likely can provide you with the content; if you aren’t sure how to find it on the library’s website, the reference desk can point you there). I notice, when looking at Google results using that title, this story is, in fact, the top link. Apparently at one point the search engine downranked paywalled news articles, but after complaints from news organizations such as the WSJ, it changed that algorithmic tweak. So there it is, though I am not a subscriber so had to use my library for access.
The second thing I see in the results are “top stories.” The first is from something I’ve never heard of called GV Wire. This appears to be a central California digital competitor to the Fresno Bee. Why that would be on top is beyond me. The other is a rather good critique by Search Engine Land, a website that has been analyzing search engines for about as long as search engines have existed. Among the other Google results on the first page are stories in the Hindustani Times, Niche Gamer and Hotelmarketing.com. Note, I was not logged in to Google, and I have locked down my privacy settings so I am getting less tailored and perhaps less relevant results than if I allowed Google to spy on me routinely. You are almost certain to see different results. Stop the presses! (Just kidding. You already knew that.)
Here’s my takeaway: There is no such thing as an algorithm that works without humans involved.
Of course Google interferes with its search algorithms. It has to. Constantly. Do we really want to leave it to marketers and trolls to take over the entirety of search results? Because they would, just as they trained Tay, the Famously Manipulated Bot, to curse like a sailor. Without intervention, every autocomplete search suggestion would be something misleading or offensive and ultimately useless, and the first result for “did the Holocaust happen?” would still be a denialist site.
That’s not to say Google’s human involvement in its search results is deliberately malicious, corrupt or partisan. It’s simply an unavoidable feature of a process that is, behind the scenes, humans telling computers how to handle human data that other humans are trying to influence. The WSJ is shocked, shocked to find there’s gambling going on in here -- but nobody should be, not if they’ve been paying the least bit of attention. It takes lots of human work to develop and maintain the technology required to index the volumes of information available online. Heck, as a librarian, I can testify to the difficulty of making even a small portion of the world’s information available, and I don’t have to deal with armies of people getting paid to influence what appears on my website.
That takeaway gives way to a meta-takeaway: There is no way to run an advertising business that doesn’t involve manipulation at its heart.
Google is an advertising business. So are YouTube and Facebook. Every business that tries to influence Google search results is an advertising business. The many websites that populate the internet, copying material from other sites or creating personal brands to host ads and gain influence, are in the advertising business. The Wall Street Journal, while using ad revenue to support its work, is not in the advertising business, it’s in the news business, and I usually find its reporting (if not its editorial board) extremely solid. However, this report is hardly the blockbuster some have called it. Among mistakes in this credulous article is the statement that Google’s “innovative algorithms ranked web content in a way that was groundbreaking, and hugely lucrative.” Actually, the page-rank algorithm itself was not lucrative. What was lucrative was the realization that the data exhaust it inadvertently captured could be exploited to convince the world that targeted ads would revolutionize the tricky business of convincing us to do things, like buy a product or support a political cause. Once Google became the dominant digital ad platform as well as the most commonly used search engine, search became a great deal more complicated.
Here’s the thing: we’ve become dependent on information systems like Google that don’t create information but are financed by the dark arts of manipulation. Does this mean we are all destined to be Tay, persuaded to mindlessly respond to the algorithmic nudges created by ad campaigns and adopt the opinions of internet influencers?
Of course not. We can still think for ourselves, but we must be aware that yes, indeed, there is gambling going on in here.