Donald Trump claimed Google’s search engine is rigged; what do we really know about how it works?

From what happens when you run a Google search to whether the web search engine tailors its results, to how it works in different countries – we have the all facts you need to know

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 9:20pm

These days most of us rely constantly on Google to find out what to buy, which restaurants to eat at and how to get from one place to another. But, partly by design, how Google does its job can still seem deeply mysterious, giving rise to theories about the way it supposedly operates. Is it possible for Google to manipulate your results? Would it?

Google denies that it does. “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we do not bias our results toward any political ideology,” the company said last week. “We never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

Trump says US tech giants are treading on troubled territory

Google’s claim may be small comfort to those convinced that their own results are being skewed. But the recent dust up between US President Donald Trump – who accused the search engine of being “rigged” – and Google is a perfect opportunity to shed light on what we do know about Google and its search algorithm.

What happens when you run a Google search?

At a high level, Google’s search engine is based on a long list of websites from which Google has already scraped information, using automated software it calls a “crawler”. The crawler gathers keywords and other data about sites on the internet, and at this point billions of webpages have been analysed this way.

When users type in a search query, Google takes their request and goes looking in its records for any matches. Then it faces another problem: how to organise all the results.

This is where the more subjective parts of Google’s search engine come in. More than 100 factors – from where the user is located to how recently a given webpage was updated – contribute to how highly a certain result may appear. In addition, the company’s famous PageRank algorithm, developed by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, plays a role in determining the authoritativeness of a given source.

Google executives are hesitant to discuss the specifics of their software, for fear of encouraging those who may seek to game the algorithm. But, said Pandu Nayak, the head of Google’s search ranking team, Google tests its own search results with humans to ensure that the search engine does what it is meant to do: provide relevant and authoritative results.

Google News’ secret sauce

Recent changes to Google News have turned it into a much more personalised product. The company now applies artificial intelligence and accounts more for your expressed preferences.

This approach has given rise to questions about what determines “news” results and just how much its engineers truly understand about the decisions their AI is making. A consistent theme in current machine learning research is that the algorithms are typically black boxes – often, the only way to determine why an algorithm made a decision is to try to reverse-engineer the logic from the results.

Influencing the sauce?

Still, it appears, companies and individuals can influence Google search results.

Reverse-engineering Google has practically become something of a cottage industry, particularly in media. Publishers are constantly trying to find ways to compete for visibility on Google News and on Google Search. For example, Google’s tendency to favour recency, or “freshness”, incentivises companies to create their webpages with metadata keywords that the search engine can easily read.

But not even the best experts can know for sure whether their techniques are working.

Google tailors search results, but less than you think

Google’s algorithm, particularly for search, is a master algorithm that is applied in real time against each search query as it comes in, according to the company. Although the algorithm itself frequently changes as Google makes tweaks, it is applied identically to each search.

Google tests its own search results with humans to ensure that the search engine does what it is meant to do
Pandu Nayak, head of Google’s search ranking team

If the results differ from person to person, that could be because they may be using a browser in incognito mode, which deletes the cookies and other third-party tracking software. Or they may be searching from a different location, triggering Google’s reflex to return local results. They may also simply be performing a search slightly later in time than another, said Christo Wilson, a computer science professor at Northeastern University who has studied Google’s search practices for six years.

This may be a function of Google’s “bias” toward freshness, Wilson explained. And this is likely what Trump experienced as well. “The results he’s getting are going to be the same results that everyone is getting for those [same] queries,” said Wilson. “At least for the US.”

Overseas, it’s a different story

Which brings us to Google’s activities in other countries that underscore the company’s ability to censor results – literally. In China, the search giant has reportedly sought to build a version of its engine that complies with the government’s policy of blocking certain sensitive results, such as those related to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

China state media blasts start-up for claiming Google-based browser

And it wasn’t long ago that Eric Schmidt, then the chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, publicly considered the possibility of demoting content that is considered hateful or extreme.