Just before Labor Day, President Trump’s latest online target became Google, as he claimed that the search results for the phrase “Trump news” were stacked unfavorably against him. He often fights back against coverage he deems negative, not only calling it bad press, but his well-known phrase, “fake news.” But the question is, “Is he right?” And if so… what does it mean?
The spotlight on Google’s search raises a number of other issues, because it’s more than a matter of he said vs. “OK, Google.” Facts, impressions, and ramifications (or retaliation) all factor into how this does (or may) affect not only search engine users but also the businesses that rely on organic SEO and paid search engine marketing to drive traffic to their stores—both virtual and brick-and-mortar.
Is Google Serving One-Sided Search Engine Results About Trump?
Google’s search engine algorithm is incredibly complex and ever-changing. It’s always been a challenge for the average user (and business) to keep up with the changes, but most businesses have learned to follow best practices and avoid the futile attempt to game the system. So in the end, content is still king, but it’s only one part of the search results puzzle. User behavior, AI determinations of user intent, location awareness, and social cues (overall popularity of content and/or sources) also factor into search results—and they can (and often do) literally differ from person to person, device to device, even if two users are sitting next to each other in the same room.
To complicate matters more, the rapidly changing news cycle means there are always new stories competing for attention in search results, some of which are very time-sensitive while others are “sticky” and will hang around for a while. Audience response, current events, and user sentiment play heavily into which items rise to the top and get more attention.
Google has already denied the bias Trump has accused them of, and independent searches have shown sources about “Trump news” from across the spectrum of political leanings. But in the end, there is such variety in search results because of the number of factors involved that it’s doubtful anyone could prove bias even if it were true (and it doesn’t appear to be, at least overtly).
Is Google’s Search Engine Biased at All?
The search engine’s practices have progressively moved toward providing information and resources to searchers with fewer and fewer clicks—to the detriment of some competitors. The travel and hotel industry has been notoriously impacted by Google serving up airfare and booking information at the top of the search results, bypassing traditional (competing) sites. Search pages often also grab content from other sites, displaying it above all other results, thereby seeking to “answer the question” without going to the original source. These end runs around other websites can have an impact on their bottom line and could well be considered a bias. However, it’s not a value-based (or political) bias, but more of a controversial business practice.
Beyond the challenges of competing with other companies to show up in search engines, Google’s initiatives in the name of “user experience” can send some businesses reeling. But it would, again, be very difficult to successfully make a case for the company using biased or rigged tactics in search results against any business or person.
Can the Government Sanction Google Based on the President’s Perception?
This is where it could get scary: federal actions against companies are not unheard of, and their outcomes are not consistent. Some corporations have been deemed monopolies and broken up into multiple companies. Acquisition and merger requests have been granted while similar requests have been denied. Major business and political issues like net neutrality have been established and then dismantled. While we can hope that any action taken against a company like Google (or its parent company, Alphabet) would be based on solid, irrefutable evidence, it’s not unheard of for companies to be penalized (formally or informally) based on special interests. And sometimes the unproven buzz is enough to cause disruption.
What Should Search Engine Users—and Business Owners—Do?
Our world is filled with content, and it can be difficult to determine its validity, and the credibility of the originating source. But search engine (and social media) users have a responsibility to vet sources, especially before passing content along to their own audiences. If users reward high quality content with the attention it deserves, while dismissing (and debunking) low quality, errant, and even harmful content, the overall value of information online would improve. That may sound overly optimistic, but it’s worth putting out there—because it’s true.
Business owners should stay on top of any concerning political issues, and contact lawmakers regarding any issues that may negatively impact our free market economy. However, a balanced response is a good contrast to the alarms raised by those trying to stir up fear and controversy.
Continue to optimize your online properties (website, social media profiles, directory listings) to be found by your customers, generate great content, and stay informed. The deck is only stacked against you if you sit on the sidelines and don’t participate. In general, it’s best for Google’s business model if your business succeeds, so make the most of the resources available to you (without fear).