Can a Search Engine be Biased? by Jason L. Miller
Is there a conspiracy deep in the belly of the Internet beast? Are corporate entities secretly driving the information available to you-subtly stroking toward a global political opinion matching their own agenda? Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not.
For the unwitting, it is largely assumed that this info-universe is under the tight, objective thumb of algorithms, a mathematical surety of neutrality.
But in the world outside, humans prove craftier than processors, and find ways to outsmart search engines. Add some advertising, and the pure waters of objectivity become a cloudy, bleach-white mess.
The icy truth is that neither humans nor search engines are perfect, and eschewed SERPs seem a hard to control inevitability.
Google wields the type of power that transforms vocabularies. It has become its own part of speech.
Need information on Montana militias? Google it.
Though militias be found, sponsored links to firearms dealers that can help you join, are not. For Google, Yahoo, and other search engines, gun retailers are persona non grata.
That leads to a lot of questions.
If search engines are selective about their advertising, are they selective about other things? Are search results slanted? Is Google liberal or conservative? Why are porn ads okay and gun ads not?
Recently, the subject has been broached on many sites, conservative and liberal, insisting that Google is slanted in favor of the other side. But how can it be both?
It may just be a matter of perception.
By some accounts, paying an SEO to increase keyword relevance is essentially the same as paid inclusion. The routes are different, but the end is the same-paying to be listed #1. Is that perspective or truth? Is it just semantic gaming?
Google recently found controversy regarding the site, “JewWatch,” an anti-Semitic page, which came up first ranked when users typed in the word, “Jew.”
After a wave of outrage, Google explained the result was not by choice but by relevance, and would not “tweak” the results by banning the site.
The Jewish community responded by “googlebombing” the Internet. A googlebomb involves setting up a large number of websites, all of them with a link to a chosen site. The purpose is to get Google to list that site first.
As a result, JewWatch was replaced as the number one ranked result.
Google was also accused of driving certain viewpoints during the 2004 election. An emotionally charged election, the Internet was flooded with news, opinion editorials, and campaign ads, and Google was called out for favoring Bush.
One especially damning example was the banishment of ads for the “Deck of Bush” playing cards, citing 54 reasons President Bush shouldn’t be reelected.
Google stated that their policy “does not permit the advertisement of websites that contain language that advocates against an individual, group, or organization.”
Deck of Bush co-creator Jerry Vasilatos responded by saying that “their definition…is completely contradictory, because they are allowing ad campaigns for products and items supportive of President Bush as well as items critical of Senator John Kerry.”
On August 24th, users who clicked on the John Kerry link in Google news came up with front-page link titles like these:
· The imploding John Kerry
· John Kerry’s Resume (Part V) At Worst, Treasonous Behavior
· Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Expose John Kerry’s Lies
· Krazy John Kerry
· John Kerry is Definitely “Unfit for Command”
· I’m John Kerry And I Approve This Flip-Flop
This doesn’t bode well for a case of objective news, especially when, according to J.D. Lasica, links for Bush seemed balanced.
Though it appears from these examples that Google leans a bit to the right, another source says Google is rank with liberal bias.
Tom Delay fans at Rightmarch.com protested Google’s censoring an ad that was a verbatim copy, aside from changing the name of Tom Delay to Nancy Pelosi, of a DNC advertisement.
But it seems far-fetched that Google is both liberal and conservative at once.
Gun advocates, though, insist search engines are, indeed, slanted. Gunmuse.com’s creator, Donny Lairson, says “search engines are silently pushing their political views with their search.”
While that may be true, it seems especially hard to prove.
Regarding denial of online gambling ads, David Krane, of Google said, “this change was made as a part of Google’s ongoing commitment to…ensure that we provide the best search and advertising experience to our users.”
Legality is also an issue, as online gambling is illegal in California.
But are porn site ads an enhancement of user experience? Isn’t viewing by minors illegal in ALL states?
While selective advertising is an obvious editorial process by Google, the question must be asked about how news articles are selected. Is there editorial freedom there, too?
Krishna Bharat, chief scientist for Google News, said, “The ranking and prominence of stories are based on several factors: How many publications are writing about a topic; how recent the articles are; the size of the story; and the frequency of the search term within the article…
“The algorithms do not understand which sources are right-leaning or left-leaning. They’re apolitical.”
It may prove a difficult task to prove the political slant of search engines. With a few exceptions, most results seem to be user (i.e. people) originated. And people are the least likely to display any type of stoic impartiality.
But algorithms, though good at math, aren’t as creative as humans with agendas
In cyberspace or real space, Mom’s advice to “consider the source” is always a wise proposition.
About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.