Google searches may not be quite as free from human interference as the company has previously claimed, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Friday.
The report claims that the hands-on approach within the company "marks a shift from its founding philosophy of 'organizing the world's information' to one that is far more active in deciding how that information should appear".
In more than 100 interviews, it has been claimed that Google manipulates the outcomes of searches. The company reportedly "evaluated" search results for effectiveness and quality and promotes specific results above others.
One former contractor told the WSJ spoke that the company down-voted search results which read like a "how-to manual" regarding suicide until the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was the top search option.
According to the contractor, Google released a message to the contracting firm stating that the company's algorithms should place Suicide Lifeline as the first option found when searching anything relating to suicide.
Google's auto-complete and suggestion functions are also manipulated by reviewers. The engineer responsible for creating the auto-complete function in 2004 used Britney Spears as an example, as she was receiving more attention over her personal life than her music.
The source said that he "didn't want a piece of human anatomy or the description of a sex act to appear when someone started typing the singer's name".
Public statements from the company have already said that it doesn't permit search predictions related to "harassment, bullying, threats, inappropriate sexualization, or predictions that expose private or sensitive information".
The company currently maintains a search blacklist of terms which autocomplete, organic search, or Google News cannot show, despite saying via multiple official platforms, including Congress, that it does not use blacklists or whitelists to determine search results.
Google's use of human manipulation and tweaking of its search algorithms is not considered an antitrust violation, however. This is despite the fact that intervention and algorithmic tweaking can itself be a form of anti-competitive behaviour, according to the WSJ, with the results favouring "big businesses over smaller ones".
Large advertisers such as eBay and even Google's own products have received advice regarding how to improve their search results, the sources said. While small businesses are left to navigate the search engine's outcomes on their own.
In September, it was announced that a group of 50 attorneys who are launching an anti-trust investigation into Google's practices would be expanding their inquiry into their search engine, according to CNBC.
50 U.S attorneys general just launched a probe into whether Google's advertising practices violate antitrust law pic.twitter.com/3VyleViaKH— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) September 9, 2019
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is leading the investigation, said in October that the investigation would prioritise Google's advertising activities.
Paxton also said, while speaking to the Washington Post, that:
"If we end up learning things that lead us in other directions, we’ll certainly bring those back to the states and talk about whether we expand into other areas."