Lauren Feiner, CNBC, November 15, 2019
Google engineers and contractors work behind the scenes tweaking algorithms that alter search results in ways it has publicly denied in the past, The Wall Street Journal found in an investigation published Friday.
After testing Google’s algorithm and conducting over 100 interviews, the Journal reported that Google has intervened in its algorithm to demote spam sites and maintain blacklists as well as make changes to its algorithm that favored the search ranking of a major advertiser, eBay, contrary to its public position.
The report could add fuel to conservatives’ claims of bias and censorship by Google based on how it determines what content surfaces in its search engine and on its video platform, YouTube.
Internal conflict over Google’s search algorithm rose to the highest levels at the company, according to the report. Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page disagreed over how to handle spam and hateful content in the early 2000s, with Brin favoring a hands-off approach and Page encouraging more proactive intervention. According to the report, Brin, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, allowed anti-Semitic sites to rank in results when users searched the term “Jew,” alongside a disclaimer that results “are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google.”
Page, pushing for a tougher approach to spam, reportedly told a search executive at the time to “Just do what you need to do,” according to the report, and that Brin would “ruin” the company.
When Breitbart News posted a video of Brin and Google CEO Sundar Pichai in 2018 seeming upset in an address to staffers after President Donald Trump’s election, Google staffers flagged on the company’s internal message boards that the video appeared on the 12th page of search results for “leaked Google video Trump,” making it look intentionally buried, the Journal reported. The leaked video reportedly ranked higher in search results shortly after.
Google also maintained blacklists of spam sites and terms to keep from auto-complete, according to the Journal, although the company maintains that this technology is not used for political outcomes, remaining consistent with an executive’s congressional testimony in 2018. Asked if Google had ever blacklisted a “company, group, individual or outlet … for political reasons,” Google vice president of public policy Karan Bhatia said, “No, ma’am, we do not utilize blacklists or whitelists in our search results to favor political outcomes,” according to the transcript.