Is Google biased against websites with certain political leanings? This was just one of the central questions put to Karan Bhatia, Google Vice President for Government Affairs & Public Policy, when he testified before the United States senate on July 16.
Bhatia spent much of his time responding to accusations that Google is actively working to suppress conservative media outlets in search results. Conservative senators, meanwhile, are mulling legislation that would roll back third-party protections for content platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
What’s driving this conversation around search engine censorship and where do we go from here? Do conservative politicians and media outlets actually have evidence to support their claims? Let’s examine the evidence.
The short answer is yes. However, a statistical reality is not compelling evidence of a search engine conspiracy.
According to the results of a study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago, content from only 20 media outlets account for 50 per cent of news article impressions on Google’s Top Stories, a card snippet on search pages of topical keywords. Of these, the top three – CNN, the New York Times, and The Washington Post – made up 23 per cent of impressions. Although each of these three outlets provide prominent platforms to politically conservative voices, they are generally accepted to frame their journalism within a centre-left perspective.
Simply put, the disproportionate performance of left-leaning media does not prove conservative politicians’ claims of censorship. To explain the disparity in search results, we need to look no further than good old-fashioned SEO.
Google’s ranking algorithms cannot discern the political bent of a news story or a website. Therefore, in order to believe in the censorship claims made by Republican senators, you would need to believe that Google is manually tweaking search results for topical keywords and events. Such a claim strains credulity.
What Google’s ranking algorithms are doing is not a case of left vs right but of presence vs absence. In other words, Google is looking for measurable indicators of a website’s expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. To the extent that these indicators are present, Google rewards a site with higher rankings. To the extent that they are absent, Google lowers that site’s page rank.
What does this tell us? It tells us that legacy journalism outlets like the Times and the Post are seen by Google as authoritative for reasons that have nothing to do with the political lean of their content. Factors like Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), load times, keywords, the prevalence of ads, internal linking, and link equity help these pages perform better on the SERPs.
Other factors could contribute to this difference as well. Better resourced media companies like the Times and the Post can afford to generate more content, allowing them to rank for more keywords. Progressive politics also command a younger and more tech-savvy audience, which may have an affect on a page’s link equity and click-through rate.
In order for a website to appear on Google News, it must first submit to Google to be accepted. Google assesses each submission manually, based on a strict set of technical and content guidelines. Google is very transparent about these requirements, and only after all the guidelines are met do they accept a news site to appear on Google’s News page. Once accepted, the performance of a news site is based strictly on SEO.
Google VP Bhatia’s testimony before the US senate has far-reaching implications for Google and other online platforms. What’s at stake is the line separating platforms – sites like Google and Facebook which host content but don’t produce or publish it themselves – and publishers – news sites that generate and publish content.
Republican senator Josh Hawley has recently introduced the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act“. This bill would fundamentally alter the line separating these two classifications. The bill ends protections for platforms like Google from liability for the content, posted by users, that appears on their site. Ironically, this bill pressures Google to engage in more censorship, not less. It also affords them less wiggle-room to classify and control offensive content.
SEO is hardly a new phenomenon, but the conversation surrounding Google’s practices in the legislative arena suggest that many important people still don’t know what it is or why it’s important. If your site is under-performing on search engines, changing the political perspective of your content will make little difference in the SERPs beyond attracting a different audience with different keywords and building a different link profile.