October 5, 2017
The news site search traffic cuts Google has been making are no longer just about clickbait and fake news. The company is now going after more of what we really need to help us understand the world.
This is to a large extent our own fault, for giving up developing our own ability to search the web properly. Yes, Google has tremendous algorithms to help us, and none of us could have done all that on our own. Yet we have allowed a third party to become our search curator. That has changed the game.
Google has taken all the press and online complaints about news generated just for the sake of getting eyeballs seriously. This used to be what is commonly known as “clickbait” – articles put online just to get potential readers to click. With titles like “You won’t believe what her mom found in her room” or “The evidence proved aliens had been there,” many of these articles were the Internet equivalent of tabloid newspapers. Entire online companies were built with the idea of getting a person to click to go to their sites first, then hitting them with a barrage of advertisements disguised as websites. Getting their clicks meant getting advertiser revenue, and that was all that mattered.
Google has also been working on making sure searches stay away from what are more clearly junk sites. It is far less common to stumble accidentally upon pornography and ill-conceived medical theory websites than in the past. They just don’t come up in a search the way they used to. That’s a good thing, especially since those who dish up such junk are getting even more clever at delivering that sort of thing.
Google’s role as a protector and an almost parental guidance source has begun to reach its limits now, however. The company has begun going after what is – thanks to President Donald Trump’s overuse of the phrase – “fake news.” This time – in its own way – Google has become more than just a protector against porn and sites clearly written with no research. It has become the arbiter of what it considers appropriate information to present in a search. That often cuts off the fringes of information knowledge that are often where the best new ideas begin to emerge.
As a case in point, one online resource, World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org), noted that its ability to show up in search traffic, which appears when one is not looking specifically for a particular site but instead for content description, dropped by 45% between April and August 2017. Because Google has further tuned its search algorithms since then, as of just a few weeks ago, the site’s traffic dropped by 74% from April’s results.
Specific articles from WSWS have suffered even worse. In April, the total number of times its article referrals showed up was 450,000. By mid-September, the number was down to 68,000, a decrease of 85%.
WSWS’s overall page rank also dropped, according to another measure of website results, Alexa, a ranking software package owned by Amazon. In the same April-September period, WSWS dropped from number 31,000 to number 41,000.
In fairness, the name of the site, World Socialist Web Site, may discourage some readers. It openly describes itself, on the version sampled on September 25, in this way:
“The World Socialist Web Site is published by the International Committee of the Fourth International, the leadership of the world socialist movement, the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938.”
It is openly about looking at the world from a Marxist perspective. Read the next lines of its description and think about them without realizing the perspective of the analysis:
“The WSWS aims to meet the need, felt widely today, for an intelligent appraisal of the problems of contemporary society. It addresses itself to the masses of people who are dissatisfied with the present state of social life, as well as its cynical and reactionary treatment by the establishment media.”
Such phrasing could be aptly assigned to some of the most heralded journalistic websites on the planet. Even Fox News, which supports more conservative analyses, speaks of the “mainstream media” as those it attempts to differ from.
Yet, take a look at the WSWS as of September 25, considering the headlines listed below, taken from the site’s “front page”:
Do these sound so distorted or twisted that a search algorithm should deliberately avoid them? Clicking to read further shows a genuinely different look at some things. In many cases, though, the perspective is just that – a different way of considering the world. It is not about creating fake news or attempting to sway public opinion – at least not in any different way than The New York Times or even the well-known conservative site National Review (nationalreview.com) does.
It is not just WSWS that has been getting this treatment from Google, however. Consider the following:
All these sites did not actively change the nature of their content since April. So what happened to cause these drops in traffic? It was exactly what has been described here – an algorithm change on Google’s part.
A post that describes for the public what is going on is entitled “Our latest quality improvements for Search,” written by Ben Gomes, VP of Engineering for Google. It was published on April 25, 2017.
It starts out by explaining a bit about how “content farms” work, which used to be a problem with Google. These covered things where there was “hidden text [such as text printed in the same color of the background, so it would blend in while still being picked up in a search] and other deceptive practices.” So far so good.
Google has now taken that far further. It has added what Gomes refers to as “algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content.” It has begun lowering the ranking of what is “offensive or clearly misleading” content, which is not what people are looking for.
Google is also making more use of its evaluators – “real people who assess the quality of Google’s search results” – and using their assessments for more hard wired adjustments to its search algorithms. The idea, as listed in Google’s own “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines,” is described by Gomes as intending “to appropriately flag low quality webpages … which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories.”
Google’s tightening of what we as readers of the socalled “free Internet” get to see in a search is getting strong support from many around the world. President Trump; U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster in the White House; Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat; and British Prime Minister Theresa May all say there is a need for stricter control of the Internet.
In her latest “tell-all” book, What Happened, Hillary Clinton blames part of her defeat to genuine “fake news.” That news is even now being addressed by Facebook in a just-released list of Russian-controlled suppliers of information spread across Facebook pages in the fall of 2016, just before the election.
Facebook has also begun adjusting its own algorithms and dealing with bot networks designed to stuff its pages with content that gains eyeballs both for those networks and for Facebook. It is unclear whether those steps will make any difference, but they are attempting the task, Facebook says.
The problem with both Google and Facebook lies in two things.
The first is that even if they find a way to reduce genuine noise in the news by using algorithms, or even more advanced protocols using artificial intelligence, these are still rule-based algorithms that people have designed. They rely on decision making that, by its nature, has bias built in. Even the best of judges will end up inadvertently blocking some things that are important to see, even if they are distorted slightly or less well-researched. The worst of those judges will block some of the best of the alternative sites.
The second is that with the massive power of Google and Facebook in deciding what all of us get to see, we have surrendered our ability to search and make decisions for ourselves to someone else.
As a simple example, with people now having so many “friends” on Facebook, Facebook has had to sample even the feeds of those one has selected as friends when presenting an online feed for its customers. Readers no longer get a chance to sort all that their friends say, all by themselves, all in the interest of making sure everybody gets a chance for their feed to come across a Facebook user’s feed.
Facebook – and now Google, with its own stylized curated news feeds within Google Now and other variants of those services – takes other types of contents and samples them for us, selecting what their algorithms feel is not only the best type of information for each of us but also of the best quality, to borrow the term used by Ben Gomes and folks within Facebook.
We are being spoon-fed a protected vision of the world from the standpoint of only a few giants that control the Internet. Even worse, those who grew up with this as the optimal way to research overly trust those giants to do the right thing, rarely actively searching for alternative visions of what might be happening in the world.
As to solutions, there are some. But with Facebook and Google dominating control of the information that reaches our eyes, though, it is tough not to fall back into the trap of just reading what’s been served up to us by the parental figures that run those two companies.
As a result, those two are also slowly squeezing the life out of alternative perspective news and news analysis sites that are becoming more important than ever to us all.