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Gaming the (Google Search) System
Posted On June 21, 2016
On June 9, 2016, an investigative video created by SourceFed accused Google of manipulating its search engine algorithm’s autocomplete suggestions to elevate results more favorable to Hillary Clinton and influence the current presidential campaign. “The intention is clear,” SourceFed’s Matt Lieberman says in the video. He claims, “Google is burying potential searches for terms that could have hurt Hillary Clinton in the primary elections over the past several months by manipulating recommendations on their site.”

Google Search responded the next day with a post on Google Inside Search, its official blog. Tamar Yehoshua, Google Search’s VP of product management, explains that “the autocomplete algorithm is designed to avoid completing a search for a person’s name with terms that are offensive or disparaging. We made this change a while ago following feedback that Autocomplete too often predicted offensive, hurtful or inappropriate queries about people. This filter operates according to the same rules no matter who the person is. …”

Yehoshua continues, “Autocomplete isn’t an exact science, and the output of the prediction algorithms changes frequently. Predictions are produced based on a number of factors including the popularity and freshness of search terms.” Terms that appear in Autocomplete may change, because search activity varies. “It’s also important to keep in mind that Autocomplete predictions aren’t search results and don’t limit what you can search for. It’s a shortcut for those who are interested. You can still perform whatever search you want to, and of course, regardless of what you search for, we always strive to deliver the most relevant results from across the web.”

UC–Davis Pays to Game the System

Responding to the financial crisis—and inspired by the 2010–2011 Arab Spring movement seeking more transparency and freedom in the Middle East—the Occupy Movement began in large cities across the globe, as well as in many universities. The University of California (UC) system, which had experienced sit-ins and protests in 2009 and 2010 over tuition hikes, was embroiled in the Occupy Movement at most of its campuses. Protesters were strident, but generally peaceful. In October 2011, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution giving its support to the movement.

However, campuses eventually sought to return to business as usual, and they began efforts to remove the protesters. At UC–Davis, during a Nov. 18, 2011, sit-in, police officers asked the protesters to leave. When they didn’t comply, officers used pepper spray on them, which was captured on video, leading to global media coverage.

The incident also led to negative publicity, police firings, and many lawsuits. In one, 21 protesters sued in federal court and settled for a total of nearly $1 million from the university. Another result of the incident was serious concern about the use of pepper spray on students. The UC–Davis chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, eventually apologized, adding that the police acted against her directions. Fearing that the incident and the coverage that followed were damaging to the university’s reputation, Katehi contracted with a private firm to repair UC–Davis’ image—and her own reputation as the campus’ leader.

Attention to the incident seemed to die down for a time, with the university working to repair the lingering damage. However, Katehi recently became embroiled in yet another campus uproar. In reaction to this, the local press decided to look into the pepper spray case in more depth.

On April 13, 2016, The Sacramento Bee published an article on documents about the incident that the newspaper had requested under the California Public Records Act. The article created a firestorm on campus and beyond. The records showed that UC–Davis had paid consultants at least $175,000 to improve its online image, which included “scrubbing” negative search results that were related to the incident from internet search results. This news came as a group of campus students were staging a sit-in at Katehi’s office, because her tenure had become an issue on campus for various reasons beyond the pepper spray incident. The paper’s coverage continues as the university does its own investigation into Katehi.

Web Scrubbing Comes of Age?

The troubles at UC–Davis call to mind the European efforts to enact “right to be forgotten” legislation, which protects people for whom some of the information accessible through web searches would unfairly damage their image and livelihoods. Additionally, it’s common to see companies offer services that are intended to game the Google search system through web scrubbing or other tactics. The Independent notes that the right to be forgotten legislation alone has created “a boom time for reputation management PR companies, which are charging clients for having personal information erased from the Internet.”

Internet Live Stats estimates that “Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average … which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.” Many academic institutions have the Google search option on their homepages (whether they link to Google Scholar or Google Search), and individuals, companies, and governments use the search engine with little consideration of the secrecy that shrouds the programming and algorithms that control the operation and results of each Google search. Google and other search engine giants are privately held companies—Google gets about $70 billion a year in advertising revenue.

Regardless of the reality of UC–Davis’ and other recent examples of gaming the search system, perhaps it’s time to see more transparency on the part of all search engine providers. For information professionals and their clients, the stakes are high and only getting higher. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Big Brother created a Ministry of Truth to manufacture “truth”—a government-approved version of events and history. A recent BBC report notes that “with more than 90% of the market in much of the world, Google’s dominance in the vital and lucrative business of searching the internet is clear. But does its mysterious and ever-changing search algorithm have too much power? Does this one force exert excessive influence over the information we all access, the success or failure of businesses, the reputation of individuals and even which political ideas triumph?” Maybe Google should begin to embrace transparency in the search.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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