Is Google in some way biased against conservative sites – especially in news? Some people believe this
This controversy has been growing over the last couple of years or so.
This claim of bias started with the president but has even made it all the way to Congress.
Today, Google will appear before Congress (again) and answer questions about these accusations of conservative censorship.
The session is called “Google and Censorship through Search Engines” and is being led by Senator Ted Cruz.
The theory behind these allegations is that Google is manually tweaking the search results to make sure conservative news does not get as much exposure as liberal media as a way to push their left-leaning agenda.
I am an SEO (search engine optimization) consultant. I do other work as well, but SEO is one of my core job functions.
As someone who does SEO, and understands how search engines work, I felt it important to write this piece to explore this alleged bias against conservative websites.
For those of you reading who also do SEO work, please bear with me for a moment as I lay out some basics for those who are not in our industry.
So What Is SEO?
As an SEO professional, I help companies make their sites better adhere to Google’s algorithms and best practices so their sites get found when users search for a keyword that matches content on their site.
Think of these algorithms as the rules for a game, except those rules change almost every day and no one ever tells you exactly what they are.
This lack of transparency and constant state of flux means most companies need someone like me to help them understand the rules they need to follow so they can do well in Google’s organic search – the area below the ads in the center of a search engine results page (SERP).
The better a site adheres to those rules, the more visibility they are given, and that means the traffic they get. And the more traffic they get, the more money they should be able to make.
In the end, SEO professionals literally stand between people getting hired or fired.
If a site does well, more people get hired. If the site doesn’t, people go home.
SEO is vital to the success of an online business today.
Platform vs. Publisher
Companies such as Google (as well as Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a Provision of the Communication Decency Act. This act prevents these companies from any legal action resulting from anything put on their websites.
These companies are designated as platforms, not publishers.
If Google was actively promoting an agenda and censoring political viewpoints that differed from theirs, that action could be used as a foundation to revoke its protection under the act.
In essence, they would no longer simply be a platform, but a publisher. This designation as publisher means they would be legally responsible for any content a user, such as anyone reading this, put on the platform.
But that can’t happen, right?
Enter Sen. Josh Hawley and the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act”.
“Tech trade organizations on Wednesday lashed out at a newly proposed bill by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., that would fundamentally alter the business models of tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube.
The new bill, titled the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, would remove the immunity provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that protects major tech companies from liability for the content posted by their users. Under the new bill companies would have to submit to audits every two years to prove their algorithms and content-removal practices are “politically neutral” in order to maintain their immunity.”
Essentially, if the Senate Committee can show Google (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are biased against conservative media (and conservatives in general) by silencing their voices, they have the foundation for passing this bill or another like it.
This would eliminate third party content protections for all sites currently designated as platforms.
“This bill forces platforms to make an impossible choice: either host reprehensible, but First Amendment protected speech, or lose legal protections that allow them to moderate illegal content like human trafficking and violent extremism,” said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, in a statement.
And Carl Szabo from Net Choice also responded by saying:
“This bill prevents social media websites from removing dangerous and hateful content, since that could make them liable for lawsuits over any user’s posting…
… Sen. Hawley’s bill creates an internet where content from the KKK would display alongside our family photos and cat videos.”
If the 230 protection goes away, these companies would have two choices.
- Let everything anyone posts stay up on their platforms forever, including types of content we can almost all probably agree should not be available online (like ISIS videos and KKK propaganda).
- Or let nothing go up on their platforms and reduce interactions to only approved media and comments. Moderation of all posts would be required.
Content moderation at this scale would be a nearly impossible task when looking at companies with literally billions of users.
Why Would They Want to Do This?
Well, there are many possible reasons and most are just speculative.
But most analyses seem to agree that conservative lawmakers fear the power of “big tech” and their ability to control so much of the Internet.
While that is not an idea without merit, the idea that they are targeting conservatives is unfounded and fueled by a lack of understanding about how content gets surfaced in the first place.
So Is Google Biased?
Before we answer that question, let’s look at some of the “facts” that have been used to make the case that it is.
There are a number of groups and interested parties that have tried to produce their own “research” into Google’s perceived bias.
We won’t examine each one, but I will take a little time to just go over the general findings as there is not a lot of difference between the accusations or findings, only in the intent they assigned behind their conclusions.
‘Proof of Bias’
There have been quite a few attempts to discern if Google is manually tweaking their algorithms to suppress conservative voices.
These investigatory processes range from a study done by two academics at the highly respected Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern down to the highly discredited Project Veritas – interviewing a figure in the shadows about his “proof” along with heavily edited videos with a Google employee supposedly admitting to the “conspiracy” (she wasn’t).
However, no matter who looked into this they all left a very important component out of their research. Although it is not the sole issue, that component is so important that not addressing it nullifies all conclusions other than – yes, liberal sites showed up more often than conservative sites.
What Did They Leave Out?
They left out search engine optimization and how it affects which sites get seen in Google search first.
SEO is not an afterthought or something you just tack on at the end. It is the driver of all placements in Google’s organic search.
Nothing gets a visible position in Google without successfully meeting (in some capacity) the factors necessary to rank.
So in ignoring SEO as part of the research, the most you can have is correlation, not causation.
Ranking Factors & Google News Sites
There are more than 200 main ranking factors in Google organic search.
Think of these as rules, that Google uses to match your query to a piece of site content in its repository.
These “factors” are the parts of the algorithm a site has to “hit” for Google to rank it well. If you do not hit these factors at the right thresholds, you will not rank as well as someone else.
And those are not the only set of factors that affects how Google News content gets placed.
First, you have to get in.
Google News: Getting In
Before you can rank your news site (get in in front of users), Google has to accept your site into Google News.
This is a manual process where you send in your site to Google’s Publisher Center and they review it for newsworthiness as well as against their required technical guidelines.
The site must meet all of the guidelines or it will be rejected – none of which however are related to any site’s political ideology.
One site I worked on, for entertainment news, took over a year to get accepted after three rejections.
So before a site can be seen in Google News, you have to get into News.
This makes the research done by the team from Computational Journalism Lab at Northwest even more problematic because they used subdomains in their research to avoid mixed political intent that they discovered on the main site pages.
The issue with this process is subdomains are not part of the main www version of the site.
They not only have to be entered into Google News separately and be added by Google, an uncommon practice for single-focused or smaller sites, but once they get accepted they have to meet the ranking factors on their own terms – they do not inherit the value of the main site!
This could greatly skew results.
“To calculate the ideological slant of the Google Top Stories box impressions, we aggregated news sources by subdomain, as opposed to root domain. That is because the data provided Bakshy, Messing & Adamic  had detected different ideological alignments within root domains (e.g. money.cnn.com has a more conservative alignment than cnn.com). In total, there are 727 subdomains in our dataset of which 187 are covered by the dataset in Bakshy, Messing & Adamic . While we only have data for 187 of 727 domains (25.7%) this covers an outsized proportion (74.1%) of impressions observed. From the 187 subdomains for which the ideology is known, 139 have an ideological score of less than zero, meaning they are left/liberal leaning sources; and the other 48 have a score of more than zero, representing right/conservative leaning sources. For just the 187 subdomains with ideology ratings, the average ideology weighted by the proportion of impressions observed in our data is -0.24, indicating an overall trend towards impressions of left/liberal sources (we compare this to a baseline of media later in this section). If we also include in that calculation the presence of subdomains for which the ideology is not known, and consider them as missing values, the proportionally weighted average ideological lean is -0.16. From all the impressions of the 727 subdomains, 62.4% have a left/liberal slant and 11.3% have a right/conservative slant (See Figure 6). Among the 10 domains with most impressions, only one (Fox News) leans conservative.”
So what looks like a larger presence of liberal sites, could simply be a smaller selection of conservative ones because they did not have subdomains included in Google News or did not work on the SEO value of the subdomains if they were included.
The AMP Factor
AMP stand for Accelerated Mobile Pages. It is a framework developed by Google to help make site pages faster on mobile devices.
However, AMP means a lot of extra work for developers, so unless you give them a reason to need it, they are not likely to adopt it.
So Google came along with the news carousel.
To be in this featured placement in Google’s search pages, you not only have to be included in Google News, but you must have AMP pages.
If you do not have AMP installed on your site, you cannot get your site content into the news carousel.
Why Is This Important?
Because that first featured position placement in the News Carousel is potentially worth hundreds of thousands of clicks to the news publisher’s site. It is the first thing people see and the thing they are most likely to click.
So we have our site in Google News, then we added AMP. Are we done yet?
Google News vs. Google Search
Being in Google News only guarantees your entry into the news section of Google.
Not the regular Google Search results or where the News Carousel is – and all that traffic!
So how do I get to the news carousel or regular Google Search pages?
This is where those rules (i.e., ranking factors) we talked about come in.
If a site wants to get to the regular (universal) search results, they have to successfully meet the ranking factor criteria Google looks for in a quality site.
Google wants a quality site. By making sure your site meets those criteria, you communicate to Google that your site is possibly one they want to show first for a query or least on the first page – because we all know no one goes to Page 2.
The better the site meets those factors, the better it also places in the News Carousel, which requires not only AMP, but that you meet their ranking factors and best practices better than the other sites competing for that placement.
Some of the ranking factors are:
- How many links come to your site and from what sources? Are they “quality” links?
- How fast do your pages download?
- How fresh is your content? (Query Deserves Freshness – this does not apply to all sites.)
- Is your site ad-heavy?
- Is your content well written and topically organized?
- Is your content optimized for your search queries?
- How well do your pages link internally?
- For news sites, is your news section clearly marked in the site architecture?
And the list goes on (200 main factors and thousands of subfactors)
What About the Political Ideology Ranking Factor?
SEO is filled with a lot of mythology. Because Google does not explicitly tell us everything that makes a site rank, people often confuse correlation with causation.
They do “X” and then “Y” happens and they are sure this is what caused a site to rank well, even if Google tells us it doesn’t.
An example of one myth that has been around for over a decade is that your Google Analytics data affects your rankings. It doesn’t, but people believe it does.
But why doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t Google want to use data from its own software?
Because it would be a horrible signal to Google about site quality because not every site uses Google Analytics. In fact, many don’t. So the data would be heavily skewed and not very useful.
Another example of a myth is that social media shares increase your rankings. They don’t.
Google tried that experiment with Twitter and Twitter walked away, so Google decided it would not use them again in that way.
They do take trending data and help surface in the moment queries, but your social shares do not affect your site’s rankings.
Yet, people still write articles saying that it helps with your rankings.
In the end, Google’s goal is to bring the most relevant sites back for your search queries and bad data makes for bad results. Yet, these myths still persist.
You know what else is a myth? That political ideology is a ranking factor.
If a ranking factor exists, then its presence makes a site rank better and its absence makes it rank poorly.
Since it is not a ranking factor, its presence does not matter to Google’s algorithms. As you can see here, ranking factors are related to site quality and user experience, nothing about specific types of content.
I could take a liberal site, turn it into a conservative one, and – as long as I did not change anything else about it – keep my ranking in Google.
Google would not care if my site was conservative or liberal.
It does not understand the context of my content at that level. So my rank and visibility would remain.
There is one last thing that is really important to how Google returns pages for a search query – user intent and query matching.
If I changed my liberal site to conservative and conservatives looked for what was on my new site, then I should maintain my traffic and rankings. All I did was switch out audiences.
However, if my newly conservative site didn’t have enough people searching for terms that matched my content, then I would lose traffic and eventually rankings.
If my site does not match the query intent of the user, Google will not bring back my pages – no matter how well I meet the ranking factors and best practices.
No one wants to be searching for roses and get manure. It definitely would not smell as sweet.
Conservative sites do not optimize their pages for the same terms that liberals do. So when a query is entered and a liberal site comes back, it might be because there is no content match in Google from a conservative site.
Liberal sites also produce far more content and there are more sites with high-quality markers.
So in Google’s database of potential matches, the liberal sites having more pages have more opportunity to get pulled in to the search results for a query where either the liberal or conservative site could get pulled in equally.
Wait, Weren’t We Talking About Bias?
Ah, yes we were talking about bias.
All this is highly relevant to the idea of bias.
It is nearly impossible to know why a site is ranking without doing a set of comparison site audits to determine how well each site in a result is adhering to best practices.
It also shows that you have to meet the rigid criteria before you can even get into Google News or its Carousels, which are the measures that are often incorrectly used to look for bias.
So before you can even know if a site is biased you have to know:
- Is it accepted in Google News?
- Does it have AMP?
- Does it have a high Google “quality score” to make it into the top 3 of the news carousel or the top 10 in the universal search?
- Does the query match a site’s content that meets all those requirements?
While Google has been known to bias its own products in the search results, the organic search results are not conservatively or liberally biased.
There is no factor for getting rankings by simply adding liberal content to your pages or for losing rankings by adding conservative content.
If something is a ranking factor, it has to affect all pages not just some. For good or bad, but ranking factors are not applied at the domain name level.
And from the Northwestern study, we can see here that Fox News is #4 in terms of the number of impressions doing far better than almost every other site on the list.
So is your conservative site not doing well and getting beat by everyone else?
Chances are, your site isn’t being suppressed for your views, but you lack SEO.
This is not to say your SEO team is doing bad work. News is a tough space where almost every site is at the top of its game.
But if you want to improve, you are going to find that getting a site audit and fixing what is not working will be much more beneficial for you, than waiting for someone to pass a law.
It is not bias that is hurting you.
It is competition.
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Featured Image: DepositPhotos.com
All screenshots taken by author, July 2019