Google defends search algorithms against bias claims


With pressure in Washington rising over allegations of political bias and its handling of personal data, Google on Monday sought to shift attention back to where it feels most comfortable: the latest advances to its core search engine.

Announcing a number of new features — which take full advantage of the reams of personal data the company collects — Google executives largely ducked issues that have put it in the political cross-hairs.

The search company came in for withering criticism from members of the Senate intelligence committee earlier this month when it failed to send one of its top executives to a public hearing on election interference. President Donald Trump has also called on the justice department to start an investigation of the company, along with other consumer internet platforms, over what he claims is bias against Republicans.

In a veiled response on Monday, Ben Gomes, head of search, said that Google uses an army of outside testers to make sure changes to its algorithms are impartial. The testers — along with the publication of the guidelines they follow — play an important part in Google’s argument that changes to search are not made at the whim of its engineers.

More than 200,000 experiments were carried out with testers last year, Mr Gomes said, with only 25 resulting in changes to the search algorithms.

“Search is not perfect, and we’re under no illusion that it is,” he said in a presentation in San Francisco. “But you have our commitment we will make it better every day.”

Speaking privately, several executives blamed White House accusations of bias on misunderstandings about how the company operates. Google needed to do a better job explaining how it makes changes to search algorithms that can have a sweeping impact on results users get from the service, these people said.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, denied the allegations of political bias in an internal email at the end of last week. He called it “absolutely false” that the company would “compromise the integrity of our search results for a political end”. He was responding to a report that some Google employees suggested the company use its search platform to counter Islamophobia following the first US Muslim travel ban last year. The company has said that the internal debate did not lead to any changes in its service.

Google has long faced criticism for apparently biased or distorted results. These range from automatically suggesting the word “evil” after references to Jews were typed into its search box, to highlighting reports that mis-identified the suspect in the Las Vegas mass shooting last year. The company responds to such glitches by first trying out algorithmic changes on its testers.

In one such move last year, Google’s algorithm was changed to suppress potentially misleading news results until more reliable sources of information become available. That made the search engine slower to reflect breaking news but more likely to be accurate.

On Monday, to mark the 20th anniversary of its search engine, Google highlighted a number of forthcoming changes that will take the company further away from the simple search box that once defined the service.

In one, a personalised feed of information will automatically appear on the company’s mobile homepage, based on an algorithmically determined assessment of a user’s interests.

Coming at a time when Facebook has relegated results from publishers in its own news feed, Google’s move positions it to fill a gap for traditional media companies, said Greg Sterling, a search industry analyst.

Another change will draw more heavily on users’ past searches to help answer new queries. The new features expand the use of information the company has about its users, though Google said it was not making any changes to its current data collection and retention policies.

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