Google Search turns 20, but will we every fully trust it?


Google Search is 20 years old today. Judging by the Google Doodle and recent feature upgrades, Google would like the day to be a celebration of how the company’s algorithms have evolved over the years, cementing its position as the dominant player in the space.

But, more than ever, tech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Google Search is turning 20 in a time where the public is questioning both our relationship with technology and the fundamental principles and motivations of the companies building it. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have borne most of the criticism, but Google has been a target as well.

Criticisms of Google Search usually go like this: someone sees what they deem as unfair results in either search or tools like autocomplete, with the suggestion being that Google is skewing the “pure” results to show bad things about one side of a group or issue and good things about the other.

Lately such speculative criticism has come mostly from conservatives, but liberals have hammered Google over it as well. In particular, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, supporters of Bernie Sanders suggested a conspiracy to filter results unfavorable to Hillary Clinton to help her win her primary race over Sanders.

On a recent appearance on Fox Business, I spoke to some panelists who pointed out the incident Google had unfairly produced a result that linked the California GOP with Nazism. The panel suggest that Google, as a tech company based in the heart of Silicon Valley (an area that overwhelmingly favored for Hillary Clinton in the last election), had a bias against conservatives and that may have influenced the result.

While I suggested there is often a technical reason for odd or incorrect results — and that I highly doubt there was a room in Mountain View where Google executives could stick their heads in when they wanted to change search results to favor a certain point of view — most appeared unconvinced.

In a way, the criticism is validation for Google — these complaints about Search would be happening if nobody used it. But Google’s enviably high perch atop the search market means it has responsibilities, too, and now more than ever the feature it needs to care most about is integrity.

Luckily, it knows that, or at least seems to. I recently sat down with Google Vice President Nick Fox, the product and design lead for Search, to talk about the state of Google’s core service, and I asked him about how Google ensures the fairness of Search.

How Google Search evolves

It all starts with Google’s guidelines for search, Fox explained. The guidelines are a 164-page document that represents Google’s “value judgments” as to how search should work, mostly having to do with providing the best user experience in matching the search terms to web pages.

“It’s our expression of how we think the Search product should work,” said Fox. “The reason it’s public is because we want to be very transparent about how we think Search should work and what we think ideal Search is.”

Whenever Google makes a change to its search algorithm, the new results are judged by how they adhere to the guidelines. But it’s not technically Google that’s doing the judging — the company hires outside contractors called raters to evaluate changes, and they’re not just a bunch of engineers in Northern California. 

“The raters that we hire are across the US, across the world,” said Fox. “We try to make sure the raters represent as much as we can a cross-section of society. It’s important to us that search works for everyone, and no individual’s point of view can influence what that looks like.”

If, say, a Google employee or executive wanted to change how Search worked to favor or eliminate certain results, Fox says the request would have to go through the same public request system that everyone in the world must use, and then the change would have to survive the rater process.

“There is a process by which anyone in the world can report bad results. Whether it’s internal or external, everyone has to report bad results to the exact same mechanism.”

However, not every change to search results involves changing the algorithm. Google Search sometimes “edits” links out of results because of various laws. For example, if a search would have surfaced copyrighted content that’s been posted illegally, a search results page might note that some links weren’t shown because there were claims against them regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Depending on the region or the specific law or policy being enforced, a note explaining the change may or may not appear.

The bigger takeaway, however — and the one that fuels search-editing conspiracy theories — is that those situations show there is a tool for eliminating bad or undesirable links that doesn’t involve an algorithm change. Fox admitted there was a “separate process” for that, but he did say Google had “incredibly strong safeguards” against any individual altering search results, including documenting of every change (although not all of that documentation is public).

He also said, as a matter of philosophy, Google prefers algorithmic changes over editing results.

“As much as we can, we endeavor to change things in an algorithmic way. If we do see a bad result, it’s likely the case that there’s something more systemic going on that needs to be fixed. There’s probably a whole class of results that needs to be addressed.”

The FUD continues

Fox’s responses were helpful, although there’s no way for Google to allay every fear of search manipulation without fully revealing its algorithms and providing full, public documentation of all changes to search, algorithmic or otherwise. Of course, it would never do that, for many reasons — partly because it would give a huge advantage to Google’s competitors, but it would also be a gold rush for link farms, spammers, or anyone looking to game the system.

And Google’s record on Search isn’t exactly spotless. Years ago, in a bid to boost engagement on its Facebook competitor, Google+, Google began to favor official Google+ pages of companies in search results over Facebook pages.

Google+, of course, is all but gone, but now Google must contend with new challenges: tech-savvy bad actors looking to spread fake news and propaganda and an increasingly polarized public that’s constantly looking for evidence of bias from either side.

Given that reality, and the fact that Google’s process will never be 100 percent transparent, the conspiracy theories will continue, something CEO Sundar Pichai will have to contend with when he testifies on Capitol Hill later this fall. And Google presses on, launching a suite of new search tools and integrating AI more deeply in Search — it won’t just be linking terms or synonyms to topics, but also their fundamental concepts, so when you Google “why does my TV look weird” the engine knows you want troubleshooting tips or a manual.

It’s great stuff, and may even take Search to heretofore unheard-of levels of usefulness, getting us to spend even more time using Google’s products. But what Google may or may not realize is that whenever it asks for more engagement, it’s also asking for more trust. For a public burned by so many tech scandals, there’s not a lot left to give.

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