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Perspective: Is it time to stop trusting Google for everything?

I decided to do an experiment on search engine results. My conclusion: We shouldn’t outsource our thinking to Big Tech

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Earlier this year I had a question. And like billions of us, I searched for the answer in the search engine affectionately known as “Google.” 

According to the latest data, there are more than 8.5 billion searches a day on Google, 99,000 in a single second. With the possible exceptions of God Almighty, mothers and teachers, no single entity is fielding more honest questions than this ubiquitous search engine. That helps explain why Google is the “most visited website in the world” — beating out YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the runners-up.

In the competition between search engines, Google also dwarfs everyone else, holding nearly 92% of the market share (compared with Bing at 3%, Yahoo! at 1.5%, and Yandex and Baidu around 1% each). Its parent company, Alphabet, is estimated to be the third most valuable tech company in the world, behind computer giants Apple and Microsoft, but ahead of Amazon.  

Much of this may be well-deserved. How many times have we been grateful to be able to quickly look up an answer to some random curiosity: “What’s the most poisonous snake in South America? ... Is ‘bork’ really a Scrabble word? ... Who sang ‘You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you?’”

On these kinds of cut-and-dried questions, mighty Google excels. But its usefulness starts to waver a bit on more complicated questions: A teenage girl’s lament, “Why are boys such jerks?” A seeker’s query, “Is God really real?” Or other important questions like “Why didn’t Weird Al win a Grammy for ‘Amish Paradise’?” 

But there’s another set of questions about which Google doesn’t appear to waver, and instead delivers answers that are ... well, a little interesting.

On that fateful spring day, for example, I was curious about how many New York police officers were injured in the protests after George Floyd’s death.

So, I Googled it. But I couldn’t find any direct answers on the first page of results. Or the second. Or the third page. I was honestly mystified at not being able to find an objective answer to a question that seemed pretty important.  

Instead, the search engine redirected my attention toward something else Google thought I should be thinking about instead — how frequently the New York police force itself was accused of aggression during the same summer protests.

To be fair, more recent searches have been better, turning up a few examinations of the scope of police injuries, although most results still minimize them and direct me elsewhere.

But I have continued to wonder: Why didn’t this simple question have clear results as quickly available as song lyrics or poisonous reptiles? Can we really trust Google with especially sensitive socio-political or health-related questions? 

The company’s bias toward its own interests has been well-known for years, leading to a $2.7 billion dollar fine in 2017 from the European Union. And in 2018, then-President Donald Trump argued that “Google and others are suppressing voices of conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can and cannot see.”

These concerns escalated in late 2019 after a fired Google engineer claimed that Google executives said they would use their power “to control the flow of information to the public and make sure that Trump loses in 2020.” Since then, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has testified before Congress, vigorously defending the company against such allegations.

Do results lean left?

So, what is actually true? In 2020, Nathan Gotch led a careful analysis of 500 results across 50 “politically driven” terms and calculated results based on whether they were non-partisan, left- or right-leaning. While 63% of Google’s search results were non-partisan, his results found “more left-leaning websites showing up for key political topics,” with 32% of the results coming from left-leaning publications, compared with 5% from right-leaning sites. 

Although he attributed the slant to better SEO strategy on the left, Gotch acknowledged “it’s clear that right-leaning websites get less visibility and coverage for key political topics.”

A separate analysis later that year by Patrick Stox likewise found that “liberal websites definitely get more (organic) traffic than conservative websites” — something he also attributed to more back-links on progressive websites and the fact that conservatives are more wary of Google. 

This wariness has led to the creation of other search engines for people concerned about censorship. Todd Ricketts, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, recently launched a search engine called Freespoke after noticing he “wasn’t getting the results that I expected.”  

I wanted to test-drive this alternative, so I picked a number of hot-button questions in American society today and compared side-by-side results on both search engines. When I searched “does abortion hurt women” on Google, for example, a myth-busting article from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute led the way.

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The same question on my Freespoke search generated results that directly addressed the question, including one answer from a Roman Catholic site:

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I found it remarkable that not a single anti-abortion commentary about this very Catholic question showed up until page five of the Google results. So, I tried the same comparative search with socially charged questions, including: Should I help my teen transition their gender? Are unarmed Black men at greater risk for being shot by police? Are white Christians really the greatest threat to American democracy? And, is climate change really going to burn up the planet?

What I found interesting about the first-page results (where an estimated 92% of clicks come from) was that the Google results presented near-unanimous results directing me to a single, monolithic answer. Thus, parents wondering whether they should help their teen transition their gender were gently nudged to allay their concerns. People asking about white Christians and democracy were assured that white nationalists were an even greater threat than imagined. And people inquiring about climate change were warned, with absolutely no equivocation, that “the climate disaster is here” and there is no hope for “the unhabitable Earth.” 

While the Freespoke search engine also offered articles reflecting mainstream views, I noticed more viewpoint diversity in the results, including articles like “Detransitioned teens explain why they regret changing genders,” “The actual number of unarmed black men shot and killed by police” and, from Deseret, “White Christian nationalism: Is it a threat to democracy?” Even with climate change, there were some articles exploring the debate more broadly: “Is climate change an ‘existential threat’? Is global warming merely a natural cycle?”

The wrong question?

Whereas it’s natural to want a search engine to provide the right answer on settled matters of fact, we should want them to present diversity of thought when meaningful debate is still taking place.

Yet in almost every socially and politically sensitive question I’ve asked of Google, the vast majority of initial responses sermonize me to the popular, orthodox position — namely, the one reflecting a politically liberal conclusion. 

I also find it curious that many of the Google results nudge me away from the question I asked and toward an answer to a question I apparently should have been asking. (For instance, my search results on the abortion question strongly hinted that I should have asked instead, “How does a lack of abortion access hurt women?”)

The orthodoxy of search results has been especially pronounced on health-related queries of late, especially since the pandemic. I’ve almost given up on search engines for that task, since most every question I pose about a particular treatment or health condition brings up only one answer. Similar to social media censorship, it appears that health-related searches are even more skewed than political searches. My results align with those of a commentator who said, “I’ve stopped using Google search entirely last year when I had to look through 8-10 pages of results to find clinically relevant data whose results did not align with the COVID narrative at the time.”

So, what does all this mean? I reached out to one of my colleagues, who has studied knowledge dissemination for many years and published research on Google Scholar, to see what he thought. Reflecting on trends at universities, mainstream media and tech companies, he said simply, “The left now controls the information.”  

I should note that this was before Elon Musk bought Twitter.

To be fair, there are many factors that influence search results, including search engine optimization experts who help us all try to game the system and rank higher in search results.

And the influence of industry is also clear. For instance, health-related results on the first page that aren’t from official organizations often have some tie to pharmaceutical companies — such as WebMD, which has been associated with Eli Lilly. Go ahead and search for anything health related, and you’ll see what I mean.  

All this makes it nice to have alternative search engines available. But do they have much of a chance to break through in the market? Hey, it’s worth a shot. But if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on a more plausible option: all of us starting to realize we need to think for ourselves and not depend on Google to do our thinking for us — especially when it comes to the most important questions of all.

In that case, a call home to Mom or raising a prayer for higher wisdom is still our best option.

Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”