3 May 2019

How Google Search Results Shape, and Sometimes Distort, Public Opinion – and Why You Should Care

Posted in Public Relations
Brook Zimmatore

Author

Brook Zimmatore is the Co-Founder & CEO at Massive. You can reach him directly at bz[at]massive.pr.

While Bing and other search engines have made some gains in recent years, Google is still the biggest game in town. The search results they serve up carry enormous influence, and even a small drop in search engine rankings could spell big trouble for the company involved.

In the public sphere, Google and other tech firms carry even greater influence. Politicians and pundits have already accused the search engine giant of manipulating search results and burying information unfavorable to certain individuals and groups. And while some of those concerns are overblown or even misplaced, that does not mean there is not a problem.

The very size of Google suggests the firm has the power to influence public attitudes, and it is important that these concerns be addressed sooner rather than later. Here are some of the ways Google has the power to shape, and sometimes even distort, public opinions and attitudes.

Manipulation of Search Results

The algorithm that underlies search results at Google is a closely guarded trade secret, and arguably the company’s most valuable piece of intellectual property. And while that algorithm generally works quite well, it is still subject to manipulation.

There have already been some high profile examples of search result manipulation, some designed to boost business interests and others aimed at destroying political campaigns and destabilizing governments. And while many of these manipulations have been discovered and shut down, there is reason to believe that at least a few of these efforts are still ongoing.

When search engine results are subject to deliberate manipulation, ordinary users may begin to doubt their value or authenticity. That could further erode trust in the media and the tech giants while fostering politically-based charges of fake news.

The Impact of Reputation Defenders

In the age of the internet, a single negative event can define an individual or business. An ill-considered tweet, a poorly worded Facebook post or a drunken email could be devastating, even if the person involved had no ill intent.

Since the first thing many people do is Google the name of a potential investor, new employer or business, what those search results show could prove critical. In this world of easy access to information, reputation has become everything.

The very size of Google suggests the firm has the power to influence public attitudes, and it is important that these concerns be addressed sooner rather than later.

Reputation defenders have quickly rushed into this void, creating companies whose sold job it is to salvage damaged reputations. These companies employ a number of tactics in pursuit of their goals, including flooding the internet with positive information, correcting the public record and demanding that damaging web pages be taken down.

When successful, the efforts of reputation defenders can have a powerful impact on public opinion, and not always with positive results. For the innocent and falsely accused, reputation defenders can be a godsend, but for the guilty, these kind of services could amount to a free pass, and provide the opportunity to repeat past offenses.

Customization of Search Results

Google and other popular search engines customize certain search results based on past user behavior, and at first glance that can seem like a useful feature. If you have searched for information on premium dog food before, ranking an article about a new brand of dog food, or a recall of an existing brand, could be extremely useful.

Even so, this customization of search results could be problematic, especially in news-related searches or politically-charged queries. When everyone sees results tailored to their implicit biases, the siloing of information becomes even more severe. In extreme cases, this kind of customization locks people into their corners and shields them from competing attitudes and information.

The pro’s and cons to “manipulate” these results could be:

PROS

  • Control over your personal image
  • Defining brands & controlling a narrative
  • Leadership & executive branding

CONS

  • Propaganda through controlled messaging
  • The hiding of serious crimes
  • Removing valuable due diligence material

Insider Attitudes and Actions

Due to the unique nature of their work, the employees at Google and other big tech firms can wield enormous power over things like search results, account approval and disciplinary actions. When used improperly, this power can have serious ramifications, and there have already been a few high profile examples.

One of the most famous, or infamous, examples of this kind of power happened at Twitter. A soon-to-be-ex employee of the company used his final day to deactivate the Twitter account belonging to President Donald Trump, resulting in a periodic outage – and sparking outrage on the political right.

While the presidential Twitter account was only inactive for a matter of minutes, the implications of the action were clear. And in the intervening months, there have been other examples of the misuse of power at high tech firms.

At Google in particular, some current and former employees have expressed concern over the political attitudes and actions of their colleagues. Those employees have gone on to say that attitudes about political and social issues could cause their fellow workers to manipulate search results, change queries and take other actions that could impact the public and skew reaction to current events.

The Autocomplete Function

The autocomplete function is another useful feature that comes with a potentially dangerous dark side. When used well, autocomplete can save time and typing. When used improperly, autocomplete has the power to skew search results and even shift public attitudes.

There are two sides to the autocomplete function, only one of which is potentially problematic. The portion of autocomplete that relies on past searches can be a real time saver, automatically bringing up past search queries and allowing users to pick the one they want.

The other part of autocomplete is more complicated, and potentially more problematic. When users start to type a search term, autocomplete springs into action, suggesting a number of related terms. This feature is designed for convenience, but the contents of the autocomplete text has the potential to change queries on the fly, and in some cases, those results could shift public attitudes, especially on contentious issues.

One could reasonably anticipate, for instance, that recommended search terms related to a controversial political candidate served up through the autocomplete function might be predominantly positive or negative, depending on how the algorithm is written and who is doing the coding. This may seem like a small issue, but repeated through hundreds of millions of queries, the impact could be quite substantial.

Tech firms like Google, Facebook and others wield enormous power in the 21st-century economy, so much so that some have recommended the companies be broken up or brought under governmental control. And while some of the fears of tech firms running wild are unfounded, there is still cause for concern. With so many people getting their news online and so much riding on a simple search result, the power of these tech firms should not be underestimated.

Brook Zimmatore

Author

Brook Zimmatore is the Co-Founder & CEO at Massive. You can reach him directly at bz[at]massive.pr.
In the age of the internet, a single negative event can define an individual or business.

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