Google Search is one of the most used apps in the world. Considering how important search results can be for businesses, Google says that it uses unbiased algorithms to prevent any gaming of the system. However, the company understands that search is a zero-sum game; making a change that helps one company is going to negatively impact another company. But the Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation
that included over 100 interviews and its own testing; the Journal
found several things about Google Search that smack of manipulation.
For example, the newspaper discovered that with its algorithm, larger businesses are favored over smaller ones. And some online destinations like Amazon and Facebook are supported at the expense of others. The Journal
also says that Google uses algorithms and blacklists to prevent certain controversial topics from showing up in the search field when auto-complete is engaged. As an example, the newspaper tested Google Search with other search engines like DuckDuckGo and Microsoft's Bing. Typing in Donald Trump is...
in Google Search brings up what the Journal
calls "more innocuous" results than seen with the auto-complete feature on other browsers.
Two billion search results a year contain misinformation or low-quality results says a former Google employee
Speaking of the algorithm employed by Google for search, one former employee told the newspaper that, "There’s this idea that the search algorithm is all neutral and goes out and combs the web and comes back and shows what it found, and that’s total BS. Google deals with special cases all the time." Additionally, one unnamed Google executive who works on search told the Journal that an internal investigation discovered back in 2016 that between .10% and .25% of search results were showing some sort of misinformation or low-quality results. That works out to about two billion such search results each year with information that just can't be trusted. And in Europe, the EU found that Google changed search results to promote its own products. The company claims that this behavior was done to give consumers more choices rather than to hurt rivals.
Besides promoting its own products, it is important to note that Google took in $116.3 billion in ad revenue last year. Companies that spend a fortune advertising on core Google sites and apps are advised by Google on how they can improve their search results. Companies that don't have such a connection with the company do not get such tips. And these recommendations from Google itself can make or break a company's business. For example, advertising agency iProspect is one of Google's largest advertising agency clients and works with outfits like clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss & Co., eye care company Alcon Inc. and footwear producer Wolverine World Wide Inc. Jeremy Cornfeldt, CEO of the Americas for iProspect notes that "If they have an [algorithm] update, our teams may get on the phone with them and they will go through it." Not every company gets that opportunity.
At left, auto-complete results from Google. At right, auto-complete results from DuckDuckGo
Online auction site eBay has had its difficulties with Google over the years. After relying on Google for as much as 33% of its internet traffic, eBay found in 2014 that its traffic started to drop so much, it reduced its annual revenue guidance for the year by $200 million. The reason for the drop in traffic? Google had decided to lower the rankings of a large number of eBay pages. The company was spending $30 million a quarter on Google ads and instead of spending those funds elsewhere, it decided to lobby Google. These efforts were successful and while eBay revised its site to make it more "relevant and useful," Google revised the rankings of eBay pages higher.
Yes, the effects of a change to Google's search algorithms could be deadly to a company that has been relying on Google for traffic. Take DealCatcher, a site that lists coupons and coupon codes. It saw its traffic drop 93% in one day as the site all but disappeared on Google Search. About a month later, out of nowhere, the traffic returned. The founder of the site, Dan Baxter, sums up the Google Search experience for most companies. "You’re kind of just left in the dark," he says. "And that’s the scary part of the whole thing."