Yet Another Study Reveals Bias in Google’s News Search

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

The evidence that verifies allegations of Google’s search bias against conservative resources continues to accumulate.

Two researchers, Daniel Trielli and Nicholas Diakopoulos at the Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern University, examined results from a large sample size they extracted from Google News in November 2017. They searched on 200 current news terms of the time (such as “Colin Kaepernick” and “tax reform”) and accumulated 6,302 links to articles shown in the search engine’s “Top Stories” box – the most desirable outcome for Web publishers, to gain traffic from curious readers.

The results: Only 20 news organizations’ sites were represented in more than half of “Top Stories,” according to Diakopoulos’s explanation in the Columbia Journalism Review, and 86 percent of article impressions in those results came from just the top 20 percent of sources.

According to the study’s findings, CNN received nearly 11 percent of impressions in “Top Stories,” the New York Times 6.5 percent, and the Washington Post 5.6 percent – collectively accounting for 23 percent of the best outcomes a news organization can hope for from Google.

“These statistics underscore the degree of concentration of attention to a relatively narrow slice of news sources,” Diakopoulos wrote in CJR.

While not surprising, the fact that these three left-leaning legacy media sources, which are among the most hostile to conservative perspectives and President Trump, is disturbing.

“Prior research has shown that search engines can affect users’ attitudes, shape opinions, alter perceptions and reinforce stereotypes, as well as affect how voters come to be informed during elections,” Diakopoulos wrote. “As such, media diversity is an important aspect to the way that Google—or any news aggregator—curates sources and perspectives.”

He further explained, based on findings from Web analytics firm, that about 23 percent of all news site traffic is derived from searches, with Google accounting for approximately half of those referrals.

It is widely known that Google wields outsized influence over commerce, which is increasingly moving to the Web with the advent of Amazon and its highly efficient and speedy home delivery capabilities. Retailers are increasingly driving sales to their websites and shuttering their brick-and-mortar locations, because fewer shoppers are showing up there. Many businesses have employees or teams dedicated solely to “search engine optimization,” for the specific purpose of making sure their companies show up at the top of search results for potential customers. These workers focus almost entirely on Google’s platform (as opposed to other lesser-used ones such as Bing or Yahoo!).

The same goes for the news business. And while the respected Northwestern researchers didn’t set out to produce a “biased against conservatives” study (of which there are already many), their findings produced that expected outcome that favored CNN, New York Times, and Washington Post and other liberal media. Beyond those well-known sources, the researchers also found that 62.4 percent of “Top Stories” results were from left-leaning sites, and 11.3 percent were from right-leaning sites (26.3 percent had no identified political leaning based on another study).

Screen Shot from Google 5/16/2019

The Northwestern research confirms other reports about Google’s alleged news search bias favoring liberal outlets and outcomes. During the 2016 campaign research psychologist Robert Epstein confirmed earlier findings revealed in a viral YouTube video that showed Google’s auto-complete search function (when you start typing and Google recommends various search terms) offered only positive suggestions when beginning a search on “Hillary Clinton,” but no negative ones. Google-owned YouTube has now censored that damning video.

PJ Media conducted a similar Google News search project focused on the term “Trump,” and found that 96 percent of the results were from liberal outlets.

Then there were the documents given to The Daily Caller that showed the Google maintains a manually controlled blacklist against conservative websites, which determines how and where their content appears in search results.

There are many other examples, and each time evidence is uncovered, Google spokespersons insist that everyone is imagining things and that there’s really nothing to it, because the company operates with no bias at all. CEO Sundar Pichai even testified to that claim before Congress.

So Google responded similarly to the Northwestern findings.

“We have no insight into the methodology these researchers used,” a Google statement said. “Other researchers have found exactly the opposite. The fact is that like Google search and Google News, our top stories feature has absolutely no signal for a story’s political point of view and simply reflects the overall corpus of news and information on the web.”

The fairly objective Northwestern researchers say if that’s the case, then Google should serve its users (both the searchers and those searched) better with greater transparency, because the company operates as the Internet gatekeeper and traffic director for most Web surfers.

“What we do know is that Google’s algorithmic curation of news in search converts to real and substantial amounts of user attention and traffic,” Diakopoulos wrote in CJR. “News source concentration on Google implies an unequal capture of attention and its benefits, including any advertising or potential subscription revenue that might result.

“If they are serious about supporting digital-first newsrooms, algorithmic news curators, including Google and others, might be more explicit in articulating the inherent design tradeoffs between the relevance desirable for individuals, the diversity desirable for society or democracy, and the fair competition desirable for news organizations.”