Misquoted and misunderstood: Why many in the search community don’t believe the WSJ about Google search
Search is complicated. The WSJ appeared set on seeing that complexity through a conspiratorial lens.
It’s Friday morning. I am stepping into an Uber from outside of the Google NYC offices after a meeting with Google employees who work directly on Google search, and my phone starts lighting up. The Wall Street Journal has published a bombshell story named “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results.”
At first, I thought maybe the Wall Street Journal had uncovered something. But as I read through page after page while being shuttled down the West Side Highway towards my office in West Nyack, New York, I was in disbelief. Not disbelief over anything Google may have done, but disbelief in how the Wall Street Journal could publish such a scathing story about this when they had absolutely nothing to back it up.
The subtitle of the story read, “The internet giant uses blacklists, algorithm tweaks and an army of contractors to shape what you see.” This line alone shows a lack of understanding on how search works and why the WSJ report on Google got a lot wrong, as my colleague Greg Sterling reported last week.
The truth is, I spoke to a number of these Wall Street Journal reporters back in both March and April about this topic, and it was clear then that they had little knowledge about how search worked. Even a basic understanding of the difference between organic listings (the free search results) and the paid listings (the ads in the search results) eluded them. They seemed to have one goal: to come up with a sensational story about how Google is abusing its power and responsibility for self gain.
Google is not certainly perfect, but almost everything in the Wall Street Journal report is incorrect. I’ll go through many of the points below.
Before I do so, to add some credibility to what I am writing if this is your first time here, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I have been reporting on search for about 16-years now. Not just search, Google search, and not just Google search — organic search and how Google’s search algorithms work. I’ve written more stories about Google search than anyone. I’ve documented more Google search algorithm updates than anyone. I’ve both praised and critiqued Google probably more than anyone.
My point is, over the 16 years of writing about this topic, watching Google’s actions, I’ve spoken to dozens, if not hundreds, of Google engineers, representatives and top-level search executives over the years. I’ve spoken to many former Google engineers who have left the company recently and years ago. I’ve looked into many of these people’s eyes.
Just plain wrong
What the Wall Street Journal published to me is either showing how it has a complete lack of understanding of search or even worse — the publication has its own agenda against Google, which honestly makes me sad.
“We have been very public and transparent around the topics covered in this article, such as our Search rater guidelines, our policies for special features in Search like Autocomplete and valid legal removals, our work to combat misinformation through Project Owl, and the fact that the changes we make to Search are aimed at benefiting users, not commercial relationships,” a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land in response to the Journal’s article. “This article contains a number of old, incomplete anecdotes, many of which not only predated our current processes and policies but also give a very inaccurate impression of how we approach building and improving Search. We take a responsible and principled approach to making changes, including a rigorous evaluation process before launching any change — something we started implementing more than a decade ago. Listening to feedback from the public is a critical part of making Search better, and we continue to welcome the feedback.”
The methodology. The Wall Street Journal “tested 17 words and phrases that covered a range of political issues and candidates, cultural phrases and names in the news … during [a] 17-day cycle.” The first issue is that out of the billions of queries Google sees every day, the paper only tested 17! Of those, the paper tested queries that by nature are political and news oriented. Plus, they only ran this over a 17-day period. During that time, Google could have updated numerous algorithms powering its search engine nearly 50 times.
Interviewed 100s of people. I know they interviewed me a couple of times, and I told you how that went above. But we reached out to Glenn Gabe, an SEO industry veteran who works extensively with companies that have been impacted by search algorithm updates, who was quoted in the piece. Gabe told us that not only were his conversations with the paper off-the-record but also that he was misquoted. Gabe said he reached out to the reporter who apologized and offered to fix the quote. But later he was told that the quote had to stay as is. Here is what Glenn Gabe sent us:
I was contacted by a writer from the WSJ in April of 2019 explaining they were researching a piece on Google’s search algorithm. During my calls (which were all off the record), it was clear that writer had a very limited understanding of how Google’s algorithms worked. So I decided to educate that writer over a series of calls (again, all of them off the record). I explained how Google’s core ranking algorithm worked, how complex it is, how many factors are involved, how core ranking updates roll out, the types of problems I come across while analyzing sites impacted by those core updates, and more. I even explained how other algorithms worked like Panda and Penguin of the past. My goal was to help the writer better understand the complexity of Search and the challenges Google has with ranking content from across the web (with trillions of pages indexed across sites).
I also explained that I can provide a quote if they needed one (since again, we were off the record). They never reached back out to me for that quote. Instead, they totally misquoted me using the phrase “black magic” when describing Google’s algorithms. I would never, ever use that phrase with regard to Google’s algorithms. And since I was off the record, I should have never been quoted at all. The situation was infuriating. I have heavily analyzed Google’s algorithms for years and I know that Google is continually working to algorithmically surface the highest quality content from across the web (and surface the most relevant content based on the query at hand). So seeing “black magic” as a quote from me was ridiculous.
After reaching out to the writer on Friday after the article was published, they asked if I can send another quote that they might use instead of the “black magic” quote. Then I heard back that the editor refused to make the change. So they actually thought about it… and they said no. Here is that quote (and keep in mind that I should have never been quoted in the first place!)
“Google’s core search ranking algorithm is extremely complex and sophisticated. It’s often seen as a black box by many businesses owners and it can be incredibly confusing to understand why certain sites rank well and others don’t.”
As you can see, that’s much different than “black magic”, which is defined as “supernatural powers or magic for evil and selfish purposes.” On the other hand, a black box is defined as, “In science, computing, and engineering, a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings.”
I was disappointed with the article based on some of the claims the writers were making about Google, and I was even more disappointed to see them misquote me and not honor being off the record. It’s a lesson for anyone thinking about speaking with a journalist about their expertise. They should think twice before saying anything, since their words could be twisted to support the narrative of the larger story. And I guess off the record could mean on the record very easily.
To completely misquote the only SEO the WSJ cited alone should discredit this report. But let’s continue.
What about eBay?
“Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter,” the Wall Street Journal reported in its piece.
Google’s own pages clearly say, “While advertisers can pay to be displayed in clearly marked sections of the page, no one can buy better placement in the search results.”
And eBay has stopped advertising numerous times with Google both in 2013 and 2007. Over the years eBay, has not been all that happy with Google’s algorithms not ranking the site as high as it would like.
Google’s organic search team and the ads team are completely separate. In fact, Google’s organic search team has penalized the Google Ads team before for violating the Google webmaster guidelines. Google’s search team has banned numerous Google properties over the years including banning Chrome (it’s own browser) from ranking for the term “browser” and Google Japan.
I’ve reported on Google for a long time and the messaging over the 16 years has always been consistent — Google does not let those who advertise have any advantage ranking in organic search. Google’s actions and messaging over the years have been consistent around this.
“Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change,” the Wall Street Journal reported in its piece.
Auto-complete suggestions, knowledge panels and featured snippets are simply not the same thing as core search results. Google has published a detailed blog post about the exceptions it makes for features such as auto-complete, knowledge panels and featured snippets.
You do not want a child typing something into Google and as they type you have Google suggest something that is inappropriate. You do not want the featured snippets or knowledge panel results to show information that is outright wrong or a lie. Google has methods to report issues with all three so that someone at Google can review these and take corrective action. Again, Google has documented this clearly over the years and any adult can see why this is important.
“Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results,” the Wall Street Journal said,
I have never seen evidence of Google ever doing this. I’ve read all the conspiracies. None have ever fully proved this to be the case and the paper’s evidence of this being true hinging on anonymous sources is thin.
“In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics,” the paper wrote.
Again, Google has documented when it will and when it won’t make changes to autocomplete suggestions. I’ve never seen Google make a change to autocomplete suggestions outside of these policies. I have seen many SEOs over the years try to manipulate these autocomplete suggestions, and in the early years, it could work. But it rarely works today. Google engineers manually going in to make changes to autocomplete to benefit the company’s agenda? I’ve never seen it proven.
The examples given by Wall Street Journal show, if anything, Google applying its own policies and guidelines to auto-complete. It is like the old “miserable failure” Google bomb that came back years later that Google had to squash. Or when Google removed images of Michelle Obama in Google image search that were offensive.
“Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism,” the paper wrote.
Google employees are constantly discussing the algorithms and if Google should take certain actions. There are real humans in the company and these conversations are likely to come up. But has Google ever been proven to make any algorithmic changes to push a political or economic agenda for the company? Not yet.
Google does a lot to ensure search results are authoritative. Google has done so over many algorithmic updates over the years. One of the more public ones was named Project Owl. The overall theme of Project Owl was to make the search results return more authoritative results that can be trusted more by users and reduce the amount of fake news and content that showed up in search.
“To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms,” the Wall Street Journal report claimed.
These contractors have zero access or control over the search results you or I see in Google. All they do is report back to Google’s engineers if the search results they are looking at are good results or bad results. It is the same thing as when you go to a hotel, you might get a poll asking you how your stay was. It is the same thing as having third-party contractors review your software application to make sure it is achieving the goals you want it to achieve. Testing with software and asking for people to grade you on your output makes sense not just for Google but for any company.
The paper also claimed that Google released an algorithmic update to “favor prominent businesses over smaller ones.” This theory has been stated since the early days of Google, dating back to the early 2000s. Google has said numerous times that its algorithms are not designed to favor large businesses. The story sounds like it is quoting someone with inside information at the company but does not cite a name or the profile of the individual who said this. There are many conspiracy theories out there on this topic, but it is also one of those things where larger businesses generally have more resources to put into building better websites, user experiences and more content. Those types of websites tend to do better in Google because they provide a better experience for searchers.
The paper cited a large advertiser of Google stating, “our teams may get on the phone with them and they will go through it.” The Journal added, “Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results.” But the advertiser the paper quoted also said, “the agency doesn’t get information Google wouldn’t share publicly.”
Honestly, it would not surprise me if a Google Ads representative would tell a big advertiser something to keep them as an advertiser. But in no way does a Google Ads representative have any access or influence to change the organic search results. It just doesn’t happen at the company.
“Google frequently adjusts how it crawls the web and ranks pages to deal with specific big websites,” the paper also said. Sure, yes, Google has methods for big sites to improve efficiency for crawling. Those options are available to small sites as well, even sites that do not spend a dime on advertising. You can use XML Sitemaps, you can use the indexing API for job post data or live stream feeds. News sites or sites that produce a lot of frequent content are crawled and indexed faster, including sites like the Wall Street Journal.
Google has had indexing issues in the past, we’ve covered many of them over the years. If Google has stopped indexing a large site due to a bug either internally or because of a bug with the publishers site, Google wants to resolve it quickly. Google wants searchers to find content the searcher is looking for. If something is preventing that, Google may reach out to that publisher to let them know of the issue. Google does this through Google Search Console and messaging — there is nothing new there and nothing wrong about Google trying to help publishers ensure their content is accessible to Google Search. Heck, Google even deindexed this site for a short period due to a bug.
The report then cites how eBay was mistreated by Google. But eBay is a big site. By the Wall Street Journal’s own conclusion, shouldn’t this big website that spends a lot of money on advertising rank well in Google? eBay has been hit by numerous algorithmic updates over the years, as have both large and small sites. Google does not differentiate its algorithm updates for small or large sites.
Google isn’t perfect, not one bit
“Sadly, the WSJ reporters tried to shoehorn a narrative onto facts that don’t fit, rather than letting the discoveries themselves guide the piece,” Sparktoro founder Rand Fishkin told Search Engine Land. “There’s a lot of unproven, speculative innuendo about how Google’s blacklists work, about the nefarious motivations behind their decisions, and no statistical or meaningful assessment of whether Google’s decisions are good or bad for businesses or users.” Fishkin has been known to criticize Google over the years. Most recently, his studies show how Google is sending less and less traffic to publishers.
“Most frustrating to me was the insinuation that Google’s removal of certain conspiracy-theory-promoting and, frankly, embarrassingly bad websites from Google News were somehow a strike against Google rather than the company doing the right thing. I’m certain the reporters at the WSJ would *never* take as factual the crazy crap spouted on those alt-right and white supremacist sites, yet here they are excoriating Google for excluding them from the news results. That part really undermined the credibility and believability of everything else in the piece (which saddens me, because there’s a number of really interesting elements that deserve further exploration),” Fishkin added.
SEO community knows better
I asked the SEO community, which is known to have a rift with Google over the years, what they thought of the Wall Street Journal article. Here are Twitter embeds of their responses.
Some of the responses:
Why we care
There is enough confusion, distrust and conspiracy theory around how Google search works. To see an article like this published by such a mainstream outlet adds to the black-eye the search industry and community has been fighting against. The search community is filled with hard-working individuals working to help their clients’ websites succeed in Google Search. That success is not done through dark, corrupt or shady tactics but rather hard, smart and thorough work in technical SEO, content marketing, promotional relations and good old-fashion marketing.
Google aims to ensure that the most relevant and useful search results show up in the organic search results. While Google cannot open-source its search ranking algorithms due to (1) competitive and (2) manipulation reasons, Google does work hard to provide a trusted set of search results for its searchers.
There are legitimate, familiar criticisms to make about Google search: that the various changes it has made to the presentation of its search results have made it harder to gain organic visibility;that it could be more transparent about certain ranking factors; that it heavily promotes its own products and services in its search results; or that it helped ensure mobile search dominance through Android. The company has been investigated and fined for antitrust violations in the EU (it is appealing) and is facing regulatory scrutiny and calls to break up (along with other major tech firms) here in the U.S. It’s through this anti-big tech lens that the WSJ’s reporting seems to have been skewed.
In the end, the WSJ’s report is an embarrassing piece of “journalism,” and a missed opportunity that unfairly paints a black eye on Google Search and the SEO community.
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