GOOGLE and the ‘adjustment’ of inconvenient viewpoints, especially climate
Guest Opinion by Kip Hansen
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, Kip Hansen, and do not reflect the opinions of WUWT or Anthony Watts, owner and editor of this blog. This is an independent Opinion Piece. It is published here by the kind forbearance of Anthony Watts and does not necessarily reflect Mr. Watts’ personal or professional viewpoints. Any errors are mine alone — Kip Hansen.
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Long Item Warning: This piece is 3600 words long and is estimated to take the average reader 18 minutes to read (every minute worth your effort). I urge you to set it aside and return to it when you really have the time to read it in its entirety. This is an important issue for most readers here. — Kip Hansen
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An odd thing happened when I wrote two recent essays regarding changes that Google has made to its web indexing/search algorithm. There were two different general opposition opinions expressed: 1) Google is doing nothing wrong, they have a near monopoly just because their product is better and people like it and 2) (lots of noise ending in) “….how dare you accuse Google of being bad!”
It’s a good thing that this site isn’t run by Google, because, if this were Google, those contrary voices would have had to be de-ranked, demoted, and sent to the very bottom of the comments list. After all, it is my opinion that they might be “mis-leading”, “low-quality opinions”, “offensive” (at least to me) or (according to my world-view) “false information”.
Of course, I haven’t really accused Google of anything — Google has publicly announced what it intended to do and has now done.
The change Google made is simply this: as Ben Gomes, vice-president of engineering, Google Search, said in a blogpost in 2017: “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content … “
It is worthwhile to look at the larger statement made by Ben Gomes back in April 2017, as reported by The Guardian:
“Ben Gomes, vice-president of engineering @ Google Search, said in a blogpost: “In a world where tens of thousands of pages are coming online every minute of every day, there are new ways that people try to game the system. The most high-profile of these issues is the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive, or downright false information.”
Regarding the changes to its search algorithm, Gomes added: “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content … so that issues similar to the Holocaust denial results that we saw back in December  are less likely to appear.” ….
Google also promised to open up how it would make such decisions in the future, although there remained criticism over its lack of transparency.
“As is often the case when Google announces changes, this couldn’t be more vague,” suggested Joost De Valk, a search engine expert at the consultancy firm Yoast.
“The changes come following months of pressure on Google over low-quality and offensive results in its search products, including autocomplete suggestions which promote the idea that climate change is a hoax.”
–by Alex Hern, Technology Reporter for the Guardian
This sounds like a great idea — let’s get rid of search result links to “content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive, or downright false information.” A worthy goal. Just about as worthy as a local citizens committee organized to rid the local public library of books that are “misleading, low quality, offensive, or [contain] downright false information.”
Out with Poe, Mark Twain and Darwin … or maybe turn it around, out with any book (or www link) that questions Darwin. That’s the rub. Evolution is a societal (and scientific) controversy — who is to decide whether we chuck Darwin or chuck books critical of Darwin. Most scientists would call for the de-ranking of websites that promote strict Genesis-based Young Earth animals-created-out-of-nothing Biblical viewpoints but then again, if we’re chucking critical-of-Darwin books, do we have to throw out textbooks which clearly show that strict-Darwinism is a false idea — and has been replaced with a more correct ideas described in the Wiki in History of evolutionary thought. Or do we just chuck books we don’t like about Darwinian evolution? And, who gets to be “we” in the previous sentence?
What about statistics? Bayes or Frequentist? Some in each camp of thought consider the other camp to be utter nonsense — but which one do we demote or de-rank as “misleading, low quality, offensive, or downright false information.” Or do we make sure to include information equally from both sides? Or favor one side a little? A lot? Or pretend that they could both be equally valid? Or let the citizenry decide by giving equal access to all statistics texts or links based on popularity?
What about really sticky social/moral controversies? Like the Right to Abortion or the Right of Fetuses to Life? Which content should we mark up as “authoritative” and which content should we demote as “offensive or downright false”? Activists on both sides of this issue consider the other side to not only be incorrect, but Wrong, Evil and worse. Again, favor one? The other? Equal position in rank to both? Pretend that the US Supreme Court is the authority on this moral issue so take the Right to Abortion as authoritative and demote and de-rank all Right to Life web sites?
How about the really hot topic of Gun Ownership/Gun Rights in America? Fifty years ago, the NRA was the authority on the issue — today, public sentiment has shifted but the US Constitution has remain unchanged.
Over the last few years, I have written here at WUWT a series on Scientific Controversies. Five major controversies in which one side seems to have an accepted consensus view but also has a vital and strong contrarian view that is solidly scientifically supported. In at least one case, the Salt Wars, the consensus view, enshrined in the policy views of major government agencies and professional societies, has been proven to be based on a view of human physiology that has been found to be incorrect — a fact that has not changed the policy stands of those organizations promoting the consensus’ policy preferences. [see links a bit further on].
It is this situation with public policy positions in regards to scientific controversies that exacerbates the “taking sides” exhibited by Google in its assignment of value judgements on “what viewpoint is authoritative” and “what is unhelpful”. A Google Search on “dietary salt” reveals the prevalence of the consensus view by Google-determined “authoritative” web sites. I was able to find the Cochrane Review on salt which is dated but which revealed the weakness of the consensus view (as exemplified by the American Heart Association’s Sodium and Salt page.) The New York Times stories on the issue are represented in search results by Jane Brody’s consensus view supporting piece “Clearing Up the Confusion About Salt” (which doesn’t, by the way, clear up the confusion) but not “Why Everything We Know About Salt May Be Wrong” by Gina Kolata in the same newspaper. Kolata reports on Dr. Jens Titze’s meticulous research — links to which are in my essay “Modern Scientific Controversies Part 6: Follow Up” (and can be found in the Quick Links at the end of this essay.) Whether the changes in search results are intentional or not, or whether they are a fair sample, is not the point — the point is that someone has to adjust the algorithm according to some standard to bias the results (using bias in its native sense) to pick out and elevate “authoritative” pages and demote others to be considered unhelpful, low-quality, offensive, misleading or as containing false information.
The bottom line? There are Social, Political, Moral, and Scientific Controversies in our modern society that are alive and well and being hammered out. Some of them may come to conclusions as science advances and others, involving social and moral issues, may never resolve. Some science issues will resolve, but then later be found to have been resolved incorrectly — as has the dietary salt issue.
On these types of societal controversies, when Google adjusts their “signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content” exactly what is their basis for deciding who (what organizations, what web sites, representing which viewpoints) is authoritative and who (what organizations, what web sites, representing which viewpoints) are “blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive, or downright false information” or “unhelpful”?
Google has apparently marked websites with a top-level domain of .gov as authoritative. Sounds good? Sure, unless your views of this controversial subject are contrary to current government policies or you think the government is up to no good on some issue. People searching your issue will find the government sites on the issue and your viewpoint will be buried. How would you feel if you lived in a totalitarian nation and find that a site humanrights.gov.tt (the government of Totaliaria) is considered by Google to be authoritative?
So, we know that Google has done and is doing this. We do not accuse them of this, they announce it to the world.
And what will be the real world effects of their intentional biasing of search algorithms?
I think we can all accept that Climate Change is a subject of some public and political controversy and most of the readers here believe that it is a scientific controversy as well. There is a strong “consensus view” enshrined in the UN agreements, agencies, and policies: all represented by the IPCC, its reports and its recommendations. There is a strong, but minority, scientific view that the IPCC reports are political and go far beyond the science. This is represented in the United States in survey after survey in which the general public is found to strongly divided on the issue.
Let’s look at an example close to home of how Google’s assignment of the label “authoritative” to some sources of information and de-ranking as “low-quality” (etc.) other sources affects this website, Watts Up With That.
How popular with the citizens of the World Wide Web is WUWT? Last check WUWT had an Alexa rating of Global Rank: 38,982 and a US Rank: 13,124 (these are unverified numbers — anyone with a current Alexa subscription is invited to supply today’s rankings — note: lower numbers are better, Google.com is #1). To give you some idea of scale, there are 1,766,926,408 registered web domains — in words: roughly one billion, seven hundred sixty seven million. Of these over 150 million are blogs. Out of those 1.76 billion sites, and more than 150 million blogs, WUWT ranks 13,124 in the US and 38,982 in the world. RealClimate.com, created by government employees on your time/your dime, reportedly rates Globally 18,850,016 (again, anyone with Alexa access is invited to update this number). There is a report that “Climate.nasa.gov” ranks far better at Global Rank: 984 and US Rank: 442, but this is a distortion as we see in the following charts:
The Alexa stats are for the root domain NASA.GOV, as indicated by all the nasa.gov sub-domains sharing the exact same statistics, it is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration site that it so high on the list, not the Climate sub-domain. How does WUWT fare in its similar chart?
The first thing you’ll notice is that Alexa has separated “Climate Change” and the social issue of “Climate Change Skepticism”, listing WUWT in a category of “Society/Issues/Environment/Opposing_Views/Climate_Change_Skeptics”. Some might argue with that, but it would be a breath of fresh air if Google were to include on search pages for these types of controversial issues, on the first page of results, the top two or three “opposing views” under the top two or three “consensus views”.
Of course, in its own category, WUWT is #1 — by a huge margin. Why such a big margin?
All through 2016 (WUWT’s tenth year) and through the migration to the new server recently, WUWT had a monthly average of nearly 3 MILLION page views per month. Compare this to the NBC touted “Two government websites on climate change [that] survive in the Trump era” — breathlessly reported to have collectively drawn “more than 68,000 page views in May , a more than 50 percent increase from the year before” — almost 700 views per day. Compare to WUWT long-term average of between 80,000 to 100,000 page views per day.
You might ask, if WUWT is already doing so well on the web, why would anyone be upset with the de-ranking/demoting of WUWT in Google Search results?
One, nobody likes to be publicly disrespected, not even me. Minority voices, like WUWT, who feel they have something important to say want people interested in our issue to be able to find us, and object to someone in a position of public trust, like Google, interfering with, stifling, the ability of interested potential readers to easily locate us by subject search.
Now, let’s do the latest numbers from WordPress:
Google’s de-ranking efforts, since early June 2018, have resulted in a greater than 30% drop in search engine referrals — about 12,000 views/visitors lost per week. These particular lost referrals mean that new readers don’t arrive at the home page and don’t subsequently click through to one or more posts. Loss of “first-time” readers means a loss of the portion of those that would become regular readers. Lost page views (and some of them lost new visitors) equates to lost ad revenue for WUWT — as revenue erodes, the ability of Anthony Watts to keep WUWT on the web decreases.
How do you suppress alternate points of view? Look to the history of newspaper wars in America’s major cities over the last century. Think of the yellow journalism days, battles for dominance between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Simple, you curtail their access to markets, you dissuade their advertisers, you attack their income streams, you limit their distribution. Google’s de-ranking of WUWT, the world’s #1 Climate Skeptic website, does all three of these. Possibly intentionally, possibly unintentionally. Regardless, it does it — makes it harder to keep the WUWT point-of-view on the web.
Is this intentional? In my opinion, it is probably not a specific attack on WUWT , though this is as yet unknown — (if there are any skeptic sympathizers in Google’s inner circle who can ferret out this information, email me — see the Author’s Note for address, anonymity guaranteed.) On the other hand, it is certainly intentional to advance the consensus view by upgrading sites to be labeled “authoritative” to be those with .gov top-level domain, such as nasa.gov, noaa.gov, and thus all their subdomains, like climate.nasa.gov. In the United Kingdom, the top-level domain for governmental sites is .gov.uk, thus metoffice.gov.uk/climate-guide There are dangers to democracy inherent in automatically labeling all governmental websites as “authoritative” — the list in my lifetime alone of instances of malfeasance by national government agencies is long and black.
There may have been efforts to specifically de-rank sites that are “skeptical of climate science” from some consensus talking points list — this is unknown and would be pure speculation at this point. But, it would have been a simple thing for Googlers to look up the Alexa rankings under “Society/ Issues/ Environment/ Opposing_Views/ Climate Change Skeptics” and say: “Ah, here’s where we start de-ranking, after all, climate change skeptics are, by our way of thinking, unreliable, misleading, unhelpful…and their information must be false, because it doesn’t agree with us”.
Do we know that Google for sure actually did this on this particular topic? No, but Google has not been transparent about their actions — they have only announced their broad intentions and we can see the effect on Google search results. We do know that Google has publically stated that they will de-rank and demote sites that are in their opinion, and in their own words: low-quality content, misleading content, offensive, or downright false. In our field, we know Google’s opinion is that this means climate skeptic sites. [see the Ben Gomes statement linked in paragraph 2, climate skepticism was used as an example.]
What to do?
This is a difficult question but can be represented as the Yellow Pages problem from days of yore. If you had a new business, you struggled to stay alive through the first year until the new Yellow Pages came out and listed your business under as many categories for which you could afford to pay, with as big as possible an ad on your main category page, hopefully near the top of the list, which was alphabetical. (Thus there were a lot of businesses like “AAA Locks and Security”.) If I recall correctly, you could pay extra for ad placement on the appropriate page.
Now, with the Internet taking the role of the Yellow Pages for most localities, one must rank high in search results. This has spawned a whole industry of Search Engine Optimization or SEO where professional help is offered to improve your website’s placement in (mainly) Google search results.
The professional practice of SEO has always been considered by Google to be “gaming the system” and Google has spent a great deal of time and effort to fight and prevent such gaming. But now, it seems, Google itself is doing the “gaming of the system” — this is not an accusation, this is Google’s announced solution to “fake news” and “low-quality and offensive results in its search products”.
The story of the years-long fight of Shivaun and Adam Raff against the enterprise that is Google today should stand as a practical lesson to us. Taking Google on is not a job for the timid — it may be a job only a national government or one of its powerful agencies can successfully undertake.
However, Google is incredibly sensitive to Public Shaming especially when that comes from the sector of society that is their political base — liberal intense-users of the Internet and associated technologies. Google changes policies only after concerted embarrassment in public view — Twitter swarms, bad press, being publicly called out on issues.
While they are not going to change any policies that are to their own economic advantage, they well may re-adjust their search algorithms to a less-biased state if enough fuss is raised on the issues of Free Flow of Information and Freedom of Ideas.
Here are some thoughts on what we can do:
- In your social media spaces, call attention to Google’s giving preference to government sources and de-ranking sites and blogs that criticize or call for reforms — basically demoting the voice of the people in favor of the voice of the government.
- Do the same pointing out Google’s biasing search results so that the Big Guys that hold Mainstream Views come out on top — and important minority views are buried under the dross. All this instead of letting the Internet decide through popularity-based rankings.
- Use any search engine other than Google and encourage your families, friends, neighbor, businesses to switch default search engines to something else — anything else. Chiefio has an excellent essay about how even DuckDuckGo is biased (because it uses Google’s database) and offers an alternative https://www.mojeek.com/
[Don’t think Google biases search? Try this “How do I change the default search engine in my browser?” in a Google search. For me, the whole first screen-full of links tell you how to switch to Google.]
- If you have a blog and wish to join a BoycottGoogleSearch movement, where any attempt to refer to your site from a Google domain returns a re-direct to a BoycottGoogleSearch page (which explains why we boycott Google) please contact me directly at my first name at the domain i4 decimal net. If there is enough support, I will set up the infra-structure and supply code to put on your pages.
- Your suggestions are welcome in comments. However, if your comment is simply how useless fighting Google is, how quixotic, how you think it is “wrong”, how stupid, how self-destructive, or whatever non-constructive idea comes to your head — please be aware that I already know these things. I am perfectly willing to stipulate all of that, there is no need to argue them in comments, it will not add anything to the conversation.
- Whenever possible, share WUWT stories with links on Facebook and Twitter, it helps spread the word.
- If “tilting against the Google windmill” is not to your taste, throw a hundred bucks into the WUWT Tip Jar and you will have done your part with much less fuss and mess. As Google’s actions will rob WUWT of much needed financial support (advertising dollars). The world will be a better place for it and you will have my [Kip Hansen’s] personal thanks (with that and an extra five bucks you can get a cup of coffee.) Thank you.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
Regular readers know I try very hard to answer their questions and field their concerns about my work here at WUWT. As this topic is intensely controversial, I will be glad to respond to polite, constructive comments as best I can. Feel free to leave your contrary views if you must but I will not be responding to them — it would simply waste my time and yours.
Those interested in the BoycottGoogleSearch effort can email me at my first name at the domain i4.net.
Thank you for reading.
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