The insidious potential of search engine manipulation vs. optimization

Ed Marsh | Mar 1, 2016

Search results designed to answer a question

Search engine optimization - SEO

As B2B marketers we typically think in terms of our performance on search results, and the cascading traffic, leads and revenue. Content is created and optimized around questions that we know searches ask and which we believe we're particularly well suited to answer.

Our expectation is that diligent, consistent effort will be rewarded with improved position in the search results for those questions. That will lead to clicks, and if done right the page which visitors hit will answer their question with authority and engage them further.

But what if the secret algorithms overlay lenses of subjectivity according to the search engine's predilections - and not only it's inferences about the searchers?

Could a company (perhaps for instance a large ad spender) receive not only preference for its results, but results which explicitly skewed results in its favor (and against competitors)? 

And what if the ephemeral nature of search results made it absolutely impossible to detect?

That's scary stuff - and it's a possibility that's been scientifically researched and documented.

Search results designed to deliver an outcome

Search engine manipulation - SEM

Research by Robert Epstein (as he recently described in an essay on Aeon) posits that Google search results, presented in a deliberately skewed format, create undetectable and enormous bias in outcomes.

So pronounced is the effect that close of 50% of searchers were influenced in the experiments (while 75% had no idea they were being influenced) and some subsets saw influence rates as high as 80%.

This article focused on the impact on political campaigns and elections. It used Google as the focus because of the preponderance of search traffic, but also looked at Facebook and other channels which could potentially mine data and target messages at specific users.

Good or bad?

When we search we want to find the best answer. It turns out the definition of best is critical here. We want the answer that provides the most insight into the specific question we have in mind. Increasingly Google infers what we have in mind based on our location, previous search history and more. Were it to use that insight to deliver results to us which enrich our understanding of a problem, and which we wouldn't have otherwise found, we'd probably all be delighted.

That's the assumption on which our use of search engines is predicated. And it's why so much time, effort and money is put into SEO and content marketing - to help push the dots really close together for Google to understand the questions for which each of our content is splendidly suited to answer.

What if all that work could be for naught? Or worse, what if it used the inferences to present results in a way to manipulate our thinking?

Put aside political preferences (in other words disregard for a moment whether the manipulation in Epstein's study favored or disadvantaged a candidate and philosophy in which you were emotionally vested) and commercial interest. Just imagine a world in which:

  • an advertiser could be invisibly, unjustifiably benefited
  • a search engine employee could be blackmailed - i.e. with threats to reveal illicit behavior - to manipulate the algorithm in favor of a company
  • search engines deliberately jumbled some results simply to make it harder to crack the code
  • an anonymous browser is an oxymoron

Any of us could come up with 50 realistic to fanciful scenarios in just 5-10 minutes. If we can, then those inclined toward the nefarious certainly can.

Food for thought

Like so many exciting technological advances there are potential dark consequences. These could be deleterious to our commercial interests, or to our political ones. And like so many powerful forces, in the wrong hands - even those with good intentions and a belief that ends may justify means - they are potentially terrifying.

I'll continue to use Google, and I'll remain an advocate of B2B content marketing and will advise B2B manufacturing companies on how to achieve great top line revenue growth results using these techniques. But I'll also ponder the potential dark side that Epstein presents and encourage others to do the same.