Earlier this fall, we talked about President Trump taking issue with Google’s search engine results (and whether or not his accusations could be accurate). This week, the issue went before Congress in an escalation of the concern over Google’s political bias in search engine results.

The takeaway: government leaders (including congress) don’t understand how search engines work. But as a business owner, do you? And should you be concerned that lawmakers regulating such corporations are so uninformed?

There is no doubt that companies like Google have incredible power and have amassed a collection of user data we can only begin to imagine the depths of. But a focus on search engine results may miss the point, primarily because of what a search engine is not. And it distracts from the real effects search engine skewing can have on small businesses.

Search engines aren’t encyclopedias.

The conversation on Capitol Hill focused on conservative vs. liberal news sources (mainstream or partisan) and how they show up in search. But search engines aren’t encyclopedias delivering (relatively) dispassionate news to educate the masses. Rather, search engines can only draw from the content available to them, and much of that content is also not dispassionate or completely unbiased, which leads to the next point.

Search engines are the sum of human-generated content served up by algorithms.

The point is two-fold: humans always bring their own bias to their content. It doesn’t mean that people always have ill intentions, but just that it’s rare to find fully objective information. Plus, the more emotionally charged the topic is, the greater the bias that is likely to come through.

Search is a popularity contest.

The goal of Google’s (and competitors’) search algorithm(s) is to deliver results that meet users’ needs for information, and the way they determine what information meets that criteria is by a number of quality signals, including content that is original, fresh, frequently shared, and visited often. Significant traffic and “social proof” from sharing don’t directly indicate whether content is true, accurate, or unbiased. It just means it’s popular, because ultimately search is a popularity contest. Does that mean that the search algorithm or the actions of search engines are biased? Not necessarily, and in fact algorithms are more likely to be agnostic of bias in the search for “satisfied” customers who found what they were looking for.

Popularity doesn’t just apply to news and commentary, and that’s why business owners need at least a general understanding of search—and to partner with an experienced and knowledgeable SEO agency that stays current and avoids black hat or spammy behavior. Small businesses can work very hard on SEO (search engine optimization) only to be overshadowed by the big brands in their online niche’s popularity contest. Without informed strategies, it can be tough to compete.

Know and serve your audience… and aim to do both very well.

The best way for your business to compete is to have a deep understanding of your audience and their needs, and to serve them very well. Give them a great user experience on your website. Provide all the information they need to decide to work with you or buy your products. Be available and understanding in all customer service. Keep in contact to nurture customer relationships. Engage with your customers on other platforms where they spend their time (like Facebook, Instagram, email, etc.). And do all of this within your niche; you may not be able to compete with the biggest players in your industry, but you have a unique offering that they don’t—your niche. Focus on that, and being stellar at it.

Support fair competition and accountability in the digital marketplace.

Even with your best marketing efforts, there’s no guarantee that methods today will continue to work far into the future. There is simply too much change online. Our company has been at this since the early days—1997—and we’ve seen a lot come and go, from website platforms to browsers to Google algorithms and rules. Whether you think search bias is real or not, you can count on change, which is why it’s also important that lawmakers support and create laws that keep the internet healthy. Keep your representatives and senators accountable to be informed, make regulations, and enact legislation that support a fair and sustainable internet marketplace—based on facts and not suspicion, rumor, or unfounded accusations. Have questions or need help with your business’s digital marketing? Give us a call or contact us!