Search Engine Optimisers have known for years that top rankings in Google are about more than just getting traffic to your website. Occupying the first spot in a competitive organic search result has additional and less tangible benefits, such as improved brand recognition, trust, and authority.
All SERP click-through studies show that the top results get by far the majority of the clicks. This simple fact, taken for granted, actually has profound consequences.
First of all we need to truly understand why the top results on Google are so dominant and why so few people bother scrolling down or, heaven forbid, go to the second page of results and beyond.
There must be a strong sense of trust accorded to Google’s search results, in that the vast majority of people trust Google’s judgement and that the results shown present the best possible websites for that particular search query.
It’s this inherent trust in Google’s search results that has such far-reaching and, until now, mostly unexplored repercussions.
Research psychologist Robert Epstein is one of several researchers looking in to the effects of search results on the human psyche. More specifically, he’s looking at how Google’s search results can impact elections.
In a great essay published on Aeon, he shows how Google’s rankings can have an immensely powerful impact on how undecided voters view political candidates, to such an extent that the outcome of elections can be decided by which webpages Google decides to rank at the top of their results:
On average, we were able to shift the proportion of people favouring any given candidate by more than 20 per cent overall and more than 60 per cent in some demographic groups. Even more disturbing, 99.5 per cent of our participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings – in other words, that they were being manipulated.
As a veteran of the SEO industry, this doesn’t really surprise me. We’ve known for years that achieving top rankings on Google carry a lot of weight beyond the immediate traffic boost. What few of us have ever bothered to think about, however, is exactly how potent a force Google’s results can be in the wider context of society’s dynamics. This is what Robert Epstein’s research is showing, and it’s a terrifying thought.
The immediate focus will be on how Google decides to rank webpages, and how the inherent bias of their ranking algorithms will impact on political viewpoints. Google’s defense will be based on algorithmic independence, but this is a thin shield as the algorithm itself is of course fully created by people.
Google’s search engineers have their own fair share of biases and personal beliefs, and those could very well influence how the algorithm decides which webpages deserve to rank. Every tweak made to the algorithm to improve the quality of search results is, in essence, an editorial decision made by a Google engineer that a certain type of webpage deserves to outrank another type of webpage.
Even if these tweaks are made on the basis of objective quality metrics, it’s very easy for political beliefs to creep in to these algorithmic tweaks without engineers’ conscious awareness. After all, our beliefs and convictions influence everything we do on a subconscious level. Our behaviour and decisions are the end product of internal mental processes that we’re only superficially aware of – most human behaviour emerges from the unknown depths of the subconscious mind.
And in the context of Silicon Valley’s homogeneous environment, it seems logical to conclude that Google’s ranking algorithm will have some inherent bias towards a certain belief system that most of its engineers adhere to.
So Google cannot honestly claim its algorithms are entirely objective and free of bias. Even without any conscious manipulation of search results, there’s an implicit prejudice built in to the search engine.
Yet regardless of what Google claims about its ranking algorithms, there’s a second issue that’s much more important to discuss. This is Google’s legal obligation, as a publicly traded company, to maximise profit.
Epstein refers to that incentive in his essay, when he discusses Facebook’s controversial political manipulation experiment:
Is Facebook currently manipulating elections in this way? No one knows, but in my view it would be foolish and possibly even improper for Facebook not to do so. Some candidates are better for a company than others, and Facebook’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s stockholders to promote the company’s interests.
This hits the nail directly on its head. Like Facebook, Google has an obligation to its shareholders to maximise profit. Combine that with the power to sway elections in favour of specific candidates, and you have a recipe for electoral manipulation that ensures candidates are elected which promote policies favouring Google’s interests.
This is the topic of an Evgeny Morozov column, in which he discusses how Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Uber are using their reach to directly impact on the democratic process:
But Uber also added a De Blasio feature to its app – an unmissable “NO CARS – SEE WHY” sign placed on New York’s map. On clicking it, users were told Uber would look like this if De Blasio won. Users were encouraged to email the mayor and the city council with a handy “EMAIL NOW” link. Eventually, De Blasio capitulated.
So far the attention has been on Facebook and Uber, who have already actively used their immense reach for political purposes. It’s time we expand our attention and include Google as well, now that there’s abundant research showing exactly how powerful a tool their search results can be when it comes to influencing public opinion.
Such manipulation is almost entirely undetectable, which begs the question; do we simply trust these technology giants to be neutral and not abuse this enormous power they’ve gathered, or do we find some way to ensure that Google and Facebook do not have decisive influence on who gets to be the next President or Prime Minister?
And it’s not just election outcomes at stake here. From Epstein’s essay:
We have also learned something very disturbing – that search engines are influencing far more than what people buy and whom they vote for. We now have evidence suggesting that on virtually all issues where people are initially undecided, search rankings are impacting almost every decision that people make. They are having an impact on the opinions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of internet users worldwide – entirely without people’s knowledge that this is occurring.
Silicon Valley companies want to be part of everything we do, all the time, to monetise every aspect of our daily lives. But beyond the immediate commercial gains, this grants Silicon Valley a very real and direct control over what we believe, who we trust, and how we behave.
In effect, with every search on Google, every post and like on Facebook, and every ride booked on Uber, we’re handing ever more power to a very small elite of men in California. I don’t know about you, but that thought makes me very uncomfortable indeed.