Is Google neutral? 4 ways of understanding search engine bias

Google is on its way to becoming the single most influential company globally. It has eclipsed its earlier achievements in AdSense, YouTube and Maps with driverless cars, green energy and life extension. It has even been suggested that Google is reorganising our brains, influencing the way we categorise and remember information.

Google is on its way to becoming the single most influential company globally. It has eclipsed its earlier achievements in AdSense, YouTube and Maps with driverless cars, green energy and life extension. It has even been suggested that Google is reorganising our brains, influencing the way we categorise and remember information.

Google Search is such a forerunner in the market that “googling” has become a verb for all web search, nevermind Yahoo!, Bing, Baidu, Yandex or any of the others. In the UK it handles 89% of all queries (in the US it has a more balanced 67% share) and it now processes over 40,000 queries per second – which translates to more than 3.5 billion searches every day!

But while Google has revolutionised our communications, it has massively increased the amount of information that bombards us. Our interests are as diverse as we are, and it’s a search engine’s role to organise and disseminate it logically. Understanding this role is partly about understanding search engines and the way they work, but there are 4 common theories that try to explain exactly what Google is.

1. Google is an editor

Google works by prioritising links in a long list with the most relevant result at the top and the others arranged in descending order. Because of the huge traffic numbers Google processes, the composition of these lists is constantly under scrutiny. Through its results pages, Google is able to determine what you’re most likely to read, potentially influencing your mindset.

This may not be a problem when you’re looking for recipes or watching cat videos, but what about applying for a job or buying a car? What about reading news commentary, religious teaching or political ideology? One popular theory is that Google is a publisher or an editor. It can choose what to include or omit from its index, and it has total editorial control over that.

For example, Google has the power to penalise websites by reducing their visibility. In 2012, Google released an algorithm update called Penguin that targeted webspam and drew attention to the risks of linking to low quality websites. Webmasters who engage in this practise run the risk of receiving manual or algorithmic penalties.

It’s not news that you can get penalised for doing something that goes against Google’s webmaster guidelines, but it also means that Google can drastically affect your business. For example, earlier this year when Expedia was penalised it dropped 25% in search visibility and shares consequently dropped by 4.5%.

2. Google is a conduit

Another theory is that Google is a conduit, like an ISP. People who subscribe to this theory see the search engine as neutral. However, search engines are biased by design: they have embedded features that allow them to favour some values over others.

One of the most impressive things about Google when it first started out in 1998 was PageRank. This is an algorithm developed by Sergey Brin that counts the number and quality of links to a page to determine a website’s popularity. Sites with more inbound links were ranked above sites with fewer links, and so on. Google now uses numerous other factors to determine a site’s quality and relevance to a query (apparently over 200 factors), but it has never stopped using popularity as a key ranking metric.

Why is popularity a problem? Because it prioritises one way of doing things over others. A great example of this is Reddit, the self-proclaimed ‘front page of the internet’. Users on the site refer to the hivemind or groupthink phenomenon, which idolises certain ideas and criticises others without giving them an open forum. Just mention Neil deGrasse Tyson, atheism or cats and you’re good to go, but Creationism, gun freedom or Republicans are not welcome. In other words, the system glorifies some opinions and silences others.

It would be reductive to say that Google works in exactly the same way, but there is a similarity: if your opinion is unpopular, the less likely it is to show up in Search results. The less visibility you receive, the less likely you are to get links and shares, and so on.

3. Google is an advisor

“The internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see”. Eli Pariser

Google gathers information about its users from Gmail, chats, mobile, social and Search. While you’re writing emails and chatting to friends, the system is incentivised to remember your details, “to show you more relevant search results and ads”.

When you’re signed into your Gmail account and also using Search, Google shows you personalised results based on your activity. This is a way to give you personalised ads but it also exposes you to opinions that an algorithm has calculated based on popularity. Is the popular result also the authoritative one? The two are not always the same.

Your personal universe online, known as a filter bubble, is made up of your unique information and activities. The important thing is, though, that you don’t get to decide what’s in your bubble. Even when you’re logged out of all Google accounts, the search engine uses numerous signals to personalise your results (apparently 57 signals in total, including your location, the browser you’re using, even the kind of computer you have). It seems as though there is no such thing as standard/objective results; only results customised to you.

“A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Mark Zuckerberg

4. Google is [not defined]

Google’s famous motto is “don’t be evil” – a motto some say the company has outgrown. But does it really matter, as long as Google (Search) works as well as it does? Do you notice Google’s ubiquity across the products and devices you use for streaming videos, emailing friends, browsing the web or navigating the world?

When newspapers entered mass production more than a century ago, gatekeepers realised that the news played a key role in shaping people’s beliefs and opinions. They decided that our information disseminators have a responsibility to ‘limit harm’ – which is pretty close to “Don’t be evil”.

But does a search engine have the right to decide what’s relevant to you? Is it able to? No matter how you use Google, and how transparent or oblique its agenda, you still have the power and authority to make up your own mind.

By Caitlin Smythe, Content Manager