Google's ubiquitous search engine, Google Search, is the backbone of the tech giant's business.
In many ways, Google Search is the backbone of the modern internet — the way much of the web is sorted and organized and located. Given how crucial it is to daily internet use for billions of people around the world, it's a particularly ripe target for manipulation.
Google denies doing as much, and insists that Google Search is built on algorithms and data gleaned from use.
But a new Wall Street Journal investigation found that Google manipulated search algorithms in some worrying ways, including prioritizing large businesses over smaller ones, removing autocomplete results that involve sensitive topics like immigration and abortion, and even outright blacklisting some websites.
In one such change to Google's search algorithms, the service guided search users to more prominent businesses over lesser-known ones, the Journal reported. That change reportedly helped to boost Amazon's store in search results.
In another example cited in the Journal's report, autocomplete search results for sensitive subjects were replaced with safer results than those found on competing search engines like Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.
Google is known for refusing to share specific details on how its search algorithms operate, which it attributes to a measure of operations logistics: If the algorithms were public, then they could be gamed, Google argues.
"Extreme transparency has historically proven to empower bad actors in a way that hurts our users and website owners who play by the rules," Google spokesperson Lara Levin told the Journal.
When reached for a response to the report, a Google spokesperson offered the following statement:
"We have been very public and transparent around the topics covered in this article, such as our Search rater guidelines, our policies for special features in Search like Autocomplete and valid legal removals, our work to combat misinformation through Project Owl, and the fact that the changes we make to Search are aimed at benefiting users, not commercial relationships. This article contains a number of old, incomplete anecdotes, many of which not only predated our current processes and policies but also give a very inaccurate impression of how we approach building and improving Search. We take a responsible and principled approach to making changes, including a rigorous evaluation process before launching any change — something we started implementing more than a decade ago. Listening to feedback from the public is a critical part of making Search better, and we continue to welcome the feedback."