Official: Google makes change, results are no longer in denial over ‘Did the Holocaust happen?’
Criticized for listing a Holocaust-denial site first, Google's results are finally changing -- but probably due to external factors.
Google’s been under intense pressure to alter its results after it was found a week ago to be listing a Holocaust-denial site first for a search on “Did the Holocaust happen.” Now, that’s finally changing.
The change is primarily a result of Google altering its algorithm. In a statement it gave to Search Engine Land several hours after this story was written, it said:
Google was built on providing people with high-quality and authoritative results for their search queries. We strive to give users a breadth of diverse content from variety of sources and we’re committed to the principle of a free and open web. Judging which pages on the web best answer a query is a challenging problem and we don’t always get it right.
When non-authoritative information ranks too high in our search results, we develop scalable, automated approaches to fix the problems, rather than manually removing these one-by-one. We recently made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web. We’ll continue to change our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.
Google declined, unsurprisingly, to go into detail about what it uses to determine if something is an authoritative site or not. It also said this is the beginning of the change process, not the end. It will continue to look at how to deal with problematic results.
The move comes much faster than expected. Google has previously said that it wanted to address this search and similarly egregious results for some other searches but that the process would take time.
Surprisingly, it has not made what I would have expected to be the easier change, altering offensive or stereotypical search suggestions. However, Google might still be grappling with developing a policy here.
On iPad, denial site bumped from first place
When searching on my iPad this evening around 1:00 a.m. ET, I found that a page from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had moved to the top free listing, knocking a denial discussion forum page from Stormfront that had been there into second place.
I was not logged into Google and was using incognito mode within Chrome, so my personal search history shouldn’t have been influencing this result. I also saw these results on desktop when I simulated using an iPad.
On desktop, denial site also moves
Initially on desktop, the older results were still showing for me, as was the case with mobile results on my iPhone (again, logged out of Google and in incognito mode):
But by 2:45 a.m. ET, my desktop results had changed to move the USHMM page first (my iPhone ones had not):
I suspect we’ll see what’s happening for me begin to spread to all devices and for more people. It can often take time for ranking changes to move across the whole of Google, because of the many data centers it is using. But I’m not alone in seeing them:
— John Doherty (@dohertyjf) December 20, 2016
Google itself gave no timeline for when the changes will fully propagate. But typically, this takes up to a few days.
New sites aim to alter the results
Also as part of the change, a new site is showing up called Did The Holocaust Happen. It was specifically designed to get into the rankings for this search and take on the denial sites. For me, it was appearing in position seven on iPad and desktop:
Later after initially spotting it, it has bounced around. Sometimes I’d see it only on iPad. One time, I saw it rank as high as second in desktop search results.
Why the change?
Initially, before Google’s statement, I wrote that I didn’t think this was a deliberate change by Google. In particular, the denial site remains in the listings, a sign it hasn’t been penalized. That would have been problematic for Google, because it really doesn’t have a good policy to pull or penalize sites for this type of reason (except, say, in Germany, where there are laws against Holocaust denial).
If it sounds crazy that Google couldn’t just pull a site pushing the horrible fiction that the Holocaust never happened, I strongly encourage you to read my story from last week on this topic. Google pulling sites for not being able to prove things could lead to it having to do stuff like banning religious sites, which are built on the foundation of faith.
Google needs a comprehensive, defendable policy. It needs an algorithm that can better cope with the amount of “post-truth” content that’s been growing. It also needs to work across a multitude of queries, not just whatever happens to get spotted.
Coming up with that seemed like a process that would take several weeks, especially watching how Google had dealt with similar type issues. For example, it took weeks after concerns rose about “content farms” for Google to develop its Panda Update filter to filter out low-quality content from its results.
Google went much faster here. Whether the short-term fix is enough remains to be seen. At times, I can still see the denial page listed first. Other searches I’ve looked at still can have awful results. We’ll have a better idea in a few days, when the new algorithm settles in across all of Google’s data centers.
How third parties change Google’s results
The results will also change even without Google’s work. What external third parties do have an impact.
For one, as people have reported on this story, starting with the Guardian that first wrote about it and followed by others, those news stories have gained ground. That’s natural for both Google and Bing. Fresh content, especially from news sites, is often rewarded on a short-term basis and ranks well.
The writer for the Guardian who has been tracking this issue also did a follow-up story about buying an ad against these results, to jump above the denial site through paid listings. However, she’s not the only one. The aforementioned US Holocaust Memorial Museum has also either been buying ads or someone is buying them for the museum, as you can see in my first example above.
That ad is almost certainly NOT causing USHMM’s free listing to rank better. Google strongly denies that ads influence rankings this way, nor has there ever been any serious evidence that it has an impact.
However, having the ad there could be causing more people to realize that the museum should be listed first naturally, for free, and begin linking to it. A rise in links, especially from authority sites and with the right type of textual context, could have an impact. The right links, the right way, can effectively act like votes to improve ranking.
As for that new site that’s appearing, it was built by an SEO — someone who knows search engine optimization — specifically to do well for this search. It’s like hiring a PR firm to deal with bad publicity. PR people know how to push for good press. SEOs know how to push for good search results.
That SEO was John Doherty, who’s well followed by other SEOs on Twitter. They, in turn, likely found ways to push links and promote the site for the good cause. Remember that the next time you hear that SEOs are all scum-sucking evildoers.
Doherty and SEOs in general have no superpowers. They can’t guarantee a favorable change in rankings, any more than a PR person can promise a good story in the press. But they have great knowledge that can improve the odds, and that’s what I think is happening here.
The challenge of the infrequent search
It’s also easier for it to happen because frankly, this isn’t a popular search. Very few people do it. The Guardian reporter who started running those ads, tapping into Google’s own data, found it happened about 10,000 times per month or about 300 times per day. In contrast, people search for “holocaust” worldwide around 15,000 times per day. Google itself handles 5.5 billion searches per day. In short, this search rarely happens.
Since it doesn’t happen that often, it’s easier to impact the results. Rare searches often have less content that’s relevant for those top spots. In fact, one of the reasons the denial site has probably ranked well and for so long is that practically no one who would be concerned about this happening has done the search to even notice, nor notice to the extent of creating content to combat it.
Why does Bing get it right & Google get it wrong?
Of course, it is weird, disappointing and disheartening that on this search, Google wasn’t getting one of the good, authoritative anti-denial sites that were listed second and third into the top position. That’s especially so given that the oft-maligned Bing managed to do it and still does, showing Wikipedia’s “Holocaust denial” page first among the non-news web listings:
As my story last week explained, there’s some speculation that Google’s results are different because it’s rewarding click-through behavior more heavily. That is, if people who do this search click a lot on a particular page in the results, that could move the page higher in rankings IF Google operates that way.
With this particular search, perhaps most doing it are already in a Holocaust-denial frame of mind. If they see a denial page in the listings, they might click on that more than anti-denial ones. And with the click-through theory, this causes the denial page to move higher.
The problem with this theory is that Google has been steadfast in saying that click-through does not directly impact its rankings like this. But, it could be that some of the click-through behavior is being indirectly mined by Google’s machine learning RankBrain system in a way that is causing these results and others to move some pages higher than with its old system that depended more on links.
That can cause some people to wonder why Google might not shut down RankBrain or shift back to depending more on links. But links have their own problems and can be gamed, to the degree that some exploits even became known as Google bombs.
In addition, RankBrain probably helps improve many results that are far more popular than this one. Google’s challenge is whether the fix it has rolled out continues doesn’t hurt the quality of its popular searches.
About that supposed right-wing bias
By the way, you might think that Google’s problem has been with right-wing bias. That’s what another Guardian article wrote, that Google was promoting information with “an extreme rightwing bias.”
The only bias really was in that article itself, which didn’t do searches to see if Google was perhaps also showing an extreme left-wing bias. And you could make that argument with things like this “white people are stupid” search:
Or with this set of “white people are inbred” results:
Sure, people on the right wing aren’t all white. But these certainly don’t give the impression that the alt-right is somehow in control of Google.
Nor did that article bother to note that if you want to cherry-pick infrequent searches, it’s not hard to find Bing suggesting objectionable searches and then delivering actual objectionable results in response. For example, “was the holocaust a hoax” on Bing lists in the first position a page that says it was:
I point this stuff out not to excuse Google. It’s the leading search engine, proudly touts the high relevancy of its results and fails in that goal when listing a Holocaust denial site first for the “Did the Holocaust happen” search.
But it’s not just a challenge for Google. It’s not just something that has a right-wing bias. It’s an overall search challenge, one that really few have noticed until our attention has been focused on it, as people grapple with the growing concerns of “fake news” and a “post-truth world.”
Postscript: This story was updated around 2pm ET from its original 1:28am ET publish time to add Google’s statement and lightly revised to reflect this was a deliberate move by Google.
Postscript 2 (Dec. 22, 4am ET): Technically, the denial site still hasn’t regained the top listing. However, this is due to the fact that our own article about the situation has bumped it into second place, as opposed to the USHMM site that had been doing it. This also seems consistent regardless of using desktop or tablet.
The results also continue to “dance” around a bit, with different pages moving up, down, in or out of the top results. But I’d say overall, the change that Google rolled out isn’t doing the intended job. If it were, we’d be seeing USHMM and/or the Wikipedia pages over taking the denial site, news articles notwithstanding.
We’re continuing to watch the situation and will update as further time passes.
Postscript 2 (Dec 24, 1:45am ET): See our follow-up story, Google’s top results for “Did the Holocaust happen” now expunged of denial sites.
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