Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google, prompting its algorithms to spit out results for hotel rates or breast-cancer treatments or the latest news about President Trump.
They are arguably the most powerful lines of computer code in the global economy, controlling how much of the world accesses information found on the internet, and the starting point for billions of dollars of commerce.
Twenty years ago, Google founders began building a goliath on the premise that its search algorithms could do a better job combing the web for useful information than humans. Google executives have said repeatedly—in private meetings with outside groups and in congressional testimony—that the algorithms are objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations.
The company states in a Google blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” It says it can’t divulge details about how the algorithms work because the company is involved in a long-running and high-stakes battle with those who want to profit by gaming the system.
But that message often clashes with what happens behind the scenes. Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.
Those actions often come in response to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups and governments around the world. They have increased sharply since the 2016 election and the rise of online misinformation, the Journal found.
Google’s evolving approach 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.
More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:
• Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.
• Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.
• Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.
• In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.
• Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism.
• To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.
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The Journal’s findings undercut one of Google’s core defenses against global regulators worried about how it wields its immense power—that the company doesn’t exert editorial control over what it shows users. Regulators’ areas of concern include anticompetitive practices, political bias and online misinformation.
Far from being autonomous computer programs oblivious to outside pressure, Google’s algorithms are subject to regular tinkering from executives and engineers who are trying to deliver relevant search results, while also pleasing a wide variety of powerful interests and driving its parent company’s more than $30 billion in annual profit.
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Google made more than 3,200 changes to its algorithms in 2018, up from more than 2,400 in 2017 and from about 500 in 2010, according to Google and a person familiar with the matter.
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As part of its examination, the Journal tested Google’s search results over several weeks this summer and compared them with results from two competing search engines, Microsoft Corp. ’s Bing and DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused company that builds its results from syndicated feeds from other companies, including Verizon Communications Inc. ’s Yahoo search engine.
The testing showed wide discrepancies in how Google handled auto-complete queries and some of what Google calls organic search results—the list of websites that Google says are algorithmically sorted by relevance in response to a user’s query.
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The Journal tested the auto-complete feature, which Google says draws from its vast database of search information to predict what a user intends to type, as well as data such as a user’s location and search history. The testing showed the extent to which Google doesn’t offer certain suggestions compared with other search engines.
Typing “Joe Biden is” or “Donald Trump is” in auto-complete, Google offered predicted language that was more innocuous than the other search engines. Similar differences were shown for other presidential candidates tested by the Journal.
The Journal also tested several search terms in auto-complete such as “immigrants are” and “abortion is.” Google’s predicted searches were less inflammatory than those of the other engines.
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One Google search executive described the problem of defining misinformation as incredibly hard, and said the company didn’t want to go down the path of figuring it out.
Around the time Google started addressing issues such as misinformation, it started fielding even more complaints, to the point where human interference became more routine, according to people familiar with the matter, putting it in the position of arbitrating some of society’s most complicated issues. Some changes to search results might be considered reasonable—boosting trusted websites like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example—but Google has made little disclosure about when changes are made, or why.
Businesses, lawmakers and advertisers are worried about fairness and competition within the markets where Google is a leading player, and as a result its operations are coming under heavy scrutiny.
The U.S. Justice Department earlier this year opened an antitrust probe, in which Google’s search policies and practices are expected to be areas of focus.
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In one change hotly contested within Google, engineers opted to tilt results to favor prominent businesses over smaller ones, based on the argument that customers were more likely to get what they wanted at larger outlets. One effect of the change was a boost to Amazon’s products, even if the items had been discontinued, according to people familiar with the matter.
The issue came up repeatedly over the years at meetings in which Google search executives discuss algorithm changes. Each time, they chose not to reverse the change, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Google engineers said it is widely acknowledged within the company that search is a zero-sum game: A change that helps lift one result inevitably pushes down another, often with considerable impact on the businesses involved.
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Many of the changes within Google have coincided with its gradual evolution from a company with an engineering-focused, almost academic culture into an advertising behemoth and one of the most profitable companies in the world. Advertising revenue—which includes ads on search as well as on other products such as maps and YouTube—was $116.3 billion last year.
Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results, a perk not available to businesses with no contacts at Google, according to people familiar with the matter. In some cases, that help included sending in search engineers to explain a problem, they said.
“If they have an [algorithm] update, our teams may get on the phone with them and they will go through it,” said Jeremy Cornfeldt, the chief executive of the Americas of Dentsu Inc.’s iProspect, which Mr. Cornfeldt said is one of Google’s largest advertising agency clients.
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One former executive at a Fortune 500 company that received such advice said Google frequently adjusts how it crawls the web and ranks pages to deal with specific big websites.
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“There’s this idea that the search algorithm is all neutral and goes out and combs the web and comes back and shows what it found, and that’s total BS,” the former executive said. “Google deals with special cases all the time.”
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Online marketplace eBay had long relied on Google for as much as a third of its internet traffic. In 2014, traffic suddenly plummeted—contributing to a $200 million hit in its revenue guidance for that year.
Google told the company it had made a decision to lower the ranking of a large number of eBay pages that were a big source of traffic.
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Companies without eBay’s clout had different experiences.
Dan Baxter can remember the exact moment his website, DealCatcher, was caught in a Google algorithm change. It was 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17. Mr. Baxter, who founded the Wilmington, Del., coupon website 20 years ago, got a call from one of his 12 employees the next morning.
“Have you looked at our traffic?” the worker asked, frantically, Mr. Baxter recalled. It was suddenly down 93% for no apparent reason. That Saturday, DealCatcher saw about 31,000 visitors from Google. Now it was posting about 2,400. It had disappeared almost entirely on Google search.
Mr. Baxter said he didn’t know whom to contact at Google, so he hired a consultant to help him identify what might have happened. The expert reached out directly to a contact at Google but never heard back. Mr. Baxter tried posting to a YouTube forum hosted by a Google “webmaster” to ask if it might have been a technical problem, but the webmaster seemed to shoot down that idea.
One month to the day after his traffic disappeared, it inexplicably came back, and he still doesn’t know why.
“You’re kind of just left in the dark, and that’s the scary part of the whole thing,” said Mr. Baxter.
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Google’s Ms. Levin said “extreme transparency has historically proven to empower bad actors in a way that hurts our users and website owners who play by the rules.”