Manipulation and Preference: How Google Became Big Brother

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Manipulation and Preference: How Google Became Big Brother
Manipulation and Preference: How Google Became Big Brother
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Journalists of The Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation, as a result of which they found out that Google is actively manipulating search results. Understanding how the "corporation of good" became Big Brother.

The world's most popular search engine could turn into a totalitarian tool

Search monopoly

Google is a real monopoly among search engines. According to the StatCounter Global Stats report, in the first half of 2019, 91.65% of people searched for information on the Internet used this search engine. The share of Bing, which ranks second in this ranking, compared to Google's figures, is simply ridiculous - less than 3%.

Apparently, the only country where the "corporation of good" failed to capture the first line is China, but the PRC has its own, special Internet. Russia has been such a country for quite a long time, but since 2017, Google is ahead of Yandex, and the gap between the two search engines is only growing.

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Perhaps the main sign of Google's success is the fact that phrases like “google on Yandex” no longer cause rejection by anyone. Moreover, the American search engine is a year younger than the Russian one. Algorithms helped to break out into the monopolies of Google. At a time when other search engines responded to a request with sites with sheets of text from key phrases (so-called doorways), Brin and Page focused on the usefulness of the content.

Google was the first in the formation of search results to add a web page authority indicator to the page titles and keyword density, calculated based on the number and quality of links that lead to this page. Also, Google has created one of the best image search engines Google Images (out of the total 91, 65% that Google ranks among search engines, about 20% fall on image searches). An important role was played by the rapid growth of the mobile Internet segment and the leading position of Android among the operating systems of smartphones.

Corporation is unkind

Such a situation opens up space for Google for almost any data manipulation. But for a long time, the overwhelming majority of people did not take this threat seriously. The search engine seemed to be an unconditional good on the information front, opposing selfish tycoons and governments, by all means trying to subjugate all the media.

Even the unofficial Google motto Don’t be Evil, written in the corporate code of the company, for a long time made it clear to both employees and users that the search engine is fighting on the bright side. However, in 2015, everything changed: then Google became part of the Alphabet holding, and the phrase Do the Right Thing was fixed as the motto, although the previous version was still in the code. And three years later, the Alphabet management quietly, as if ashamed of something, completely removed the phrase "Don't be evil" from the document.

Google's famous motto - Don't Be Evil

Now Google employees are encouraged to do only the right things, and “what is good and what is bad” is determined by management. As a recent journalistic investigation has shown, this approach is already being used with might and main.

Wall Street Journal investigation

Despite the fact that the principle of operation of Google's search algorithms is generally known, as is the list of ranking factors for web resources, the developers do not disclose all the details. In theory, this is reasonable and does not allow site owners to manipulate search results.

However, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal reveals that Google is manipulating the SERP itself. Now the search engine is not only engaged in "organizing the world's information", but decides how this information should look - and actively implements its decisions.In preparing the material, the staff of the publication took more than 100 interviews with employees of Google and related companies, and also conducted their own testing of the search service.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” says popular wisdom. Some of the measures aimed at artificially adjusting search results have a very reasonable basis. One of the first cases in which Google had to tamper with algorithms was the 2015 anti-vaccine fever. Then one of the most popular searches was the phrase "how do vaccines cause autism", the search results contained a large amount of completely unscientific resources.

After complaints from people who were deeply familiar with the essence of the issue, when this query was introduced, the first result was the site howdovaccinescauseautism.com, on the main page of which it was written in big black letters: They f ### ng don't, which can be translated as “No shit they don't call. " Likewise, the search results were corrected for requests such as “how to commit suicide,” so that the first result in this search result was the website of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

First thing - big business

The examples above are classic "good lies." Surely such measures have saved lives of more than one person. However, such manipulations with the issuance apply to both advertising and search results for commercial queries. According to The Wall Street Journal, Google "favors" large corporations over small firms, despite public statements that the company does not do this.

People interviewed during the investigation said that some of the big advertisers are getting "direct advice" on how to improve their rankings. Among the sites that have used this location of the bosses of Google is the online auction eBay. Until 2014, this website received more than a third of clicks from search, but after changing the algorithms, the site's indicators fell, which led to a decrease in annual revenue by about $ 200 million.

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After consulting with the developers, eBay optimized its site and spent about $ 120 million a year on advertising, receiving improved indexing from Google in return. The search engine does not favor small companies so much: they have to find out on their own what features of search algorithms lead to a drop in traffic or the exclusion of pages from the search results.

Jeremy Kornfeldt, CEO of iProspects, also spoke about preferences for big business. His firm promotes Levi Strauss & Co and a number of other well-known apparel manufacturers. According to Kornfeldt, when they have problems after updating Google's search algorithms, iProspect representatives directly call the search engine developers and ask them to figure it out.

Scandalous issue

The work done by the journalists of The Wall Street Journal is not the first scandal about how the former "corporation of good" corrects the delivery of information to its users. For the first time, they started talking about search manipulation in 2009, when the European Commission received a complaint from the Ruff spouses - the founders of the Foundem recommendation service, which helped to search for goods on the Web at the most favorable prices.

Search engines like Yahoo and Live Search (now Bing) displayed Foundem quite well in the search results, and Google excluded the site from search results. Most likely, this was due to the introduction of the Universal Search algorithm and the appearance in the SERP of a specialized section with the "best results". This block actually competed with the results given by Foundem.

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Then Google explained the situation by the fact that the Foundem website had non-unique content (which is generally typical for all search and recommendation sites). In addition, Google representatives stated that the company's actions are aimed at caring for users: "We can provide a direct answer to a huge number of questions, allowing people to save time."

In 2015, Yelp, a local marketplace for searching services with the ability to add and view reviews, made accusations against Google. Its developers have created a browser plugin called Focus on the User that mimics Google's OneBox - a logical continuation of Universal Search, the blocks of which are above the rest of the search results and offer a brief help or the same "best results".

At the same time, Focus on the User did not use automatic ranking and linking to maps, introduced by Google back in 2009, when generating search results. A survey of 2,690 people found that users were 45 percent more likely to select search results from Focus on the User over OneBox, as the latter were less relevant. According to the developers of Yelp, this is a deliberate move by a monopolist in the world of search engines: with local search, Google deliberately degrades the search results in such a way as to "slow down or exclude candidates for leading positions from it."

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Google is not only struggling with direct competitors, of which Yelp is certainly one. Search engine owners try to influence the political situation by adjusting the search results. This summer, Google's senior software engineer Greg Coppola, who is developing the Google Assistant project at the company, in an interview with Project Veritas, admitted that he was concerned about the political engagement of the leadership.

According to Coppola, the results of extraditions on separate requests related to politics are in fact propaganda against the US Republican Party and Donald Trump. “For every request, for example, about Donald Trump, Google News gives out a portion of sites - and they are all ardent opponents of the president. I would call it interference in the American elections,”says the developer. At the same time, the head of Google, Sundar Pichai, said in 2018, testifying in Congress that the search engine algorithms did not show any political bias.

How we got into dystopia

By consistently outstripping the competition in algorithms and technology, Google has gained almost unlimited power over information. And that's bad for everyone. The world's most popular search engine has no competitors in most countries. This allows the algorithms and the people who create them to form our opinion about the world: where to go on vacation, what to wear, who to vote for, and what products are worth trying - the system helpfully recommends to us what it sees fit.

Researchers call this the manipulative effect of the search engine. How to deal with this is not yet clear, because Google actually does not violate anything, and its management has the right to decide how the SERP should look like. Answering the user's question in a way that is acceptable to them is their exercise of the right to freedom of speech.

Another effect that is definitely harmful for ordinary users is the so-called filter bubble. Search engines with personalized search results generate search results based on a person's previous actions. This algorithm leads to the fact that a kind of information cocoon is formed around the user. A person begins to receive only that information that is consistent with his established points of view, without being able to consider opposing opinions and interpret his beliefs critically.

Does this harm our security? "Google is an invisible form of control, which is much more dangerous because it cannot be fought and cannot be resisted," says renowned psychologist Robert Epstein. “What if this smart machine that controls our thoughts doesn't want you to think badly about it? Think about it at your leisure, but for now remember: the final word is not yours."

One thing is clear: the "corporation of good" has gradually turned into a dystopian Big Brother - and this is not at all what we expected from the search engine. Relying entirely on the algorithms, we forget that behind these very algorithms there are real people with their own ambitions, vanity and convictions.In their hands, Google is becoming an impressive tool for gaining power over the world.

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