According to a massive report from The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Google manipulates the results of search queries far more than it has admitted. While some of the interventions the Journal mentions might seem like they have the best interest of users in mind, the fact is Google isn't a neutral party simply pointing people to the best results. In many cases, it's deciding what should be the best, and adjusting things accordingly.
For example, the Journal's report details how Google tweaks its algorithm in some cases to favor large businesses over small, even though those large businesses aren't necessarily asking for the changes, and even though they may not be any more relevant to a user's search. Google argues that it does so because it believes larger companies are more likely to be able to serve customers searching for specific types of products.
While, according to the report, many employees inside Google have protested, its search results continue to be tilted in favor of companies like Amazon or Walmart, instead of local companies that offer competing products or services. If you are one of those local businesses, that can make a huge difference.
A Google spokesperson told me, regarding the Journal's report, that it "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. 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."
On the other hand, some of the reported changes that Google makes to its algorithm might seem like common sense. For example, the company has manually adjusted the search results for queries related to searches around suicide or other topics that might indicate a searcher is at risk of self-harm. It also manipulated results related to anti-vaccination searches to lower the ranking of sites it considers to be presenting false information or hoaxes.
I don't know anyone who would argue against listing a suicide hotline over other results, but you have to ask yourself, where's the line? What about political issues, or hot-button issues like gun control? In a country that values free expression, I'm not sure most people think Google should be manipulating what comes up when you search for those topics.
Once you start to make changes that deviate from the results determined by the algorithm, you're no longer neutral. If you aren't neutral, it changes the perception of trust that people place in those search results. While you probably assumed there was some bias in search results, it's now clear that Google has made changes that reflect its own best interests over its users. That's a big problem, not only for Google, but for businesses who are trying to get noticed in search results.
Of course, even an algorithm isn't entirely neutral, because it's designed by actual people who make decisions that affect the outcome. Still, the idea is that those decisions should affect all searches equally, meaning they aren't manipulating one type of search or its specific outcome.
But that isn't what happens. Google has intervened to weed out what it considers spam results that add no benefit to a user. While most of us would say we prefer not to waste time sifting through spam, is there an objective definition of spam that we all agree on? What happens when Google decides that your site is spam?
Google's search algorithm also regularly boosts results from companies like Amazon and Facebook, and the company has made changes based on requests from large advertisers like eBay on at least one occasion, according to the Wall Street Journal. In that case, as a result of significant lobbying by eBay, Google increased the ranking of results that had been previously demoted. A Google spokesperson wouldn't comment on eBay specifically but the company denies it ever makes changes based on advertiser requests.
That's in addition to the way Google determines what appears in its auto-complete feature, which makes suggestions about common search phrases as you type. Google regularly manipulates these to prevent offensive or controversial topics from surfacing, which seems reasonable. Except, you still have to wonder who decides what is reasonable. According to the WSJ, it appears Google makes those decisions on its own.
Here's why it matters to your business: Appearing in search results can be the difference between success and failure for some companies. If you've built your business on Google's platform, especially in organic search, you know how important it is to appear high in search rankings. Every time Google makes a change to its algorithm--like it did last weekend--it can have a dramatic effect on the traffic that comes to your site.
When that happens, it can devastate a business. For most companies, there's no appeal process or way to find out how to handle the changes Google makes. Which brings me to the final point, which is that there is a cost anytime you choose to build your business entirely on someone else's platform.
That's especially true when you consider that platforms like Google (or even Facebook or Amazon, for that matter) can make changes that are entirely outside of your control. While Google is still one of the most valuable sources of traffic for most businesses, your overall strategy should be designed to drive traffic from a range of channels.
That will at least help you mitigate the fact that someone at Google may one day decide your site shouldn't be at the top of the search results, which we now know happens much more than we thought.
*Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a response from Google.