How Google Alters Search Queries to Get at Your Wallet

Recently, a startling piece of information came to light in the ongoing antitrust case against Google. During one employee’s testimony, a key exhibit momentarily flashed on a projector. In the mostly closed trial, spectators like myself have only a few seconds to scribble down the contents of exhibits shown during public questioning. Thus far, witnesses had dropped breadcrumbs hinting at the extent of Google’s drive to boost profits: a highly confidential effort called Project Mercury, urgent missives to “shake the sofa cushions” to generate more advertising revenue on the search engine results page (SERP), distressed emails about the sustained decline in the ad-triggering searches that generate most of Google’s money, recollections of how the executive team has long insisted that obscene corporate profit equals consumer good. Now, the projector screen showed an internal Google slide about changes to its search algorithm.

I was attending the trial out of long-standing professional interest. I had previously battled Google’s legal team while at the Federal Trade Commission, and I advocated around the world for search engine competition as an executive for DuckDuckGo. I’m all too familiar with Google’s secret games and word play. With the trial practically in my backyard, I couldn’t stay away from the drama.

This onscreen Google slide had to do with a “semantic matching” overhaul to its SERP algorithm. When you enter a query, you might expect a search engine to incorporate synonyms into the algorithm as well as text phrase pairings in natural language processing. But this overhaul went further, actually altering queries to generate more commercial results.

There have long been suspicions that the search giant manipulates ad prices, and now it’s clear that Google treats consumers with the same disdain. The “10 blue links,” or organic results, which Google has always claimed to be sacrosanct, are just another vector for Google greediness, camouflaged in the company’s kindergarten colors.

Google likely alters queries billions of times a day in trillions of different variations. Here’s how it works. Say you search for “children’s clothing.” Google converts it, without your knowledge, to a search for “NIKOLAI-brand kidswear,” making a behind-the-scenes substitution of your actual query with a different query that just happens to generate more money for the company, and will generate results you weren’t searching for at all. It’s not possible for you to opt out of the substitution. If you don’t get the results you want, and you try to refine your query, you are wasting your time. This is a twisted shopping mall you can’t escape.

Why would Google want to do this? First, the generated results to the latter query are more likely to be shopping-oriented, triggering your subsequent behavior much like the candy display at a grocery store’s checkout. Second, that latter query will automatically generate the keyword ads placed on the search engine results page by stores like TJ Maxx, which pay Google every time you click on them. In short, it’s a guaranteed way to line Google’s pockets.

It’s also a guaranteed way to harm everyone except Google. This system reduces search engine quality for users and drives up advertiser expenses. Google can get away with it because these manipulations are imperceptible to the user and advertiser, and the company has effectively captured more than 90 percent market share.

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