Tech

Google exercises more direct control over search results than it has admitted, report claims

Key Points
  • Google has changed its search algorithm to alter search results in ways it has publicly denied in the past, a new investigation from The Wall Street Journal finds.
  • 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.
  • CNBC reports Thursday that the 50 state attorneys general probing Google are planning to expand their investigation into Google's search and Android businesses.
Sundar Pichai, Google CEO
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

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. Antitrust regulators are already probing Google's business to determine if it has wielded a dominant market position to stifle competition or hurt consumers. CNBC reported Thursday that the 50 state attorneys general probing Google are planning to expand their investigation into Google's search and Android businesses.

In a statement to CNBC, a Google spokesperson said the Journal's story had inaccuracies and relied on anecdotes that no longer apply to its current policies related to search.

"We have been very public and transparent around the topics covered in this article, such as our Search rater guidelines, our policies for special features in Search like Autocomplete and valid legal removals, our work to combat misinformation through Project Owl and the fact that the changes we make to Search are aimed at benefiting users, not commercial relationships," the statement said.

"This article contains a number of old, incomplete anecdotes, many of which not only predated our current processes and policies but also give a very inaccurate impression of how we approach building and improving Search," the statement continued. "We take a responsible and principled approach to making changes, including a rigorous evaluation process before launching any change — something we started implementing more than a decade ago."

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. Later, Google changed its algorithms to fight spam and allowed for more manual intervention, people familiar with the matter told the Journal.

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. The Google spokesperson said the company investigates incoming reports when the search algorithm isn't working as it expects.

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. 

Google has also made at least one change to its algorithm that benefited a major advertiser, the Journal reported.

In 2014, eBay saw its traffic from Google nosedive, contributing to a $200 million decrease in its revenue guidance for the year, according to the report. After Google told the company it had made a change that lowered the ranking of several high traffic pages, eBay considered pulling its roughly $30 million quarterly advertising spend from Google, but ultimately decided to start a pressure campaign on executives, the Journal reported. Google eventually agreed to boost the ranking of several eBay pages that were demoted while eBay took on a costly revision of its web pages to make them more relevant, sources told the Journal.

An eBay spokesperson said in a statement, "We've experienced significant and consistent drops in Google SEO for many years, which has been disproportionally detrimental to those small businesses that we support." Google declined to comment regarding the eBay changes.

Read the full report at The Wall Street Journal.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include Karan Bhatia's complete response before congress in 2018. Google has consistently maintained that it does not use blacklists to censor or favor certain political points of view.

WATCH: How to download everything Google knows about you

VIDEO1:3901:39
How to download everything Google knows about you