With now approximately 90 percent of global market share of web searches, Google effectively decides what the world sees.
This is not a statement of opinion, it’s a statement of fact. Over the years, Google has applied innumerable updates and changes to its search algorithms to perfect and improve results for users worldwide, implementing 1,600 of these changes last year alone.
But who polices the Internet police, and how can website owners be certain they’re being properly represented by the search giant?
Google and the Algorithm Behind the Curtain
Years ago, it was common practice for webmasters and other internet experts to game search engines like Google using so-called “blackhat” trickery like keyword stuffing within pages, hiding invisible keywords within meta tags and even dumping lots of invisible keywords at the bottom of pages in order to increase their ranks artificially.
Google and company got smarter and learned to negate this type of gaming, so then buying links to nowhere became a thing, and so on and so forth. The arms race between blackhats and search engines rages forever.
That’s where the internet finds itself today, with Google implementing something like artificial intelligence to actually read pages and interpret their meaning in order to rank them. Google’s Project Owl is the most recent in a long string of major and controversial updates to the engine. This time, Google is trying to determine what sites publish “fake news” and which are legitimate news sites. The goal is to improve search by eliminating fake news results, thus giving users more responsible and higher quality content.
However, because of concerns about blackhats, Google never releases specific details about how it does what it does when there’s a Google algorithm change. It claims that doing so would give people information they would use to try to take advantage of the algorithm, which history says is likely true. Instead, Google offers little in transparency and only limited guidelines about what ideal content should look like.
Media Checks and Balances
There’s some public push for regulation of Google in the same way some utilities are controlled.
But in some states, some utilities, like electricity, are unregulated, so these laws may be difficult to enforce on a state-by-state basis. For Google and other tech giants, perhaps the best checks and balances come from independent companies like SimilarWeb, which spends their days analyzing the web.
For example, when the chairman of the World Socialist Web Site blamed a perceived 70 percent drop in traffic on Project Owl updates, going as far as accusing Google of censorship in a New York Times article, the Times reporter involved was able to verify that there was, in fact, a drop in traffic during that period with the help of SimilarWeb. However, it was only a 34 percent drop.
While it’s not a perfect system, having independent agencies, media outlets and other web professionals constantly checking Google and other search engines for accuracy is one of the more effective methods of policing possible for a multinational system used by so many different people.
These vast networks can quickly disseminate information about problematic patterns in search engine behavior, even resulting in loss of revenue if the issue is bad enough. Google is not the boogeyman – its international audience has all the real power.