Google bias

On a daily basis, most of us visit Google more often than the water cooler, bathroom, and break room combined. “Visit” is, of course, a figure of speech. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that this free, intangible service is part of a for-profit enterprise; but Google isn’t a government-run operation (knock on wood).

So when we discuss the “censoring” of Google we first need to differentiate it from high school libraries that rip Huckleberry Finn from their shelves. When Google rejects e-zines and web journals, it is acting like a museum curator finding pieces unsuitable for his collection. But if the government were blocking access to media (like the Great Firewall of China does), the First Amendment would be violated.

Google News promotes itself as an objective source of information; but there are limits to the number of sites it can include. With its up-to-the-minute rankings of images and news feeds — all created by algorithmic calculations of citation relevance, rather than human editors — an unlimited news feed would create cluttered, inaccurate results (a likely target of PR flack, if not spam).

Weblogs, given their often hasty and inaccurate reporting, are the first to get thumbs down. Webzines, many times indistinguishable from blogs, are also vulnerable. Last year, the metric for blogs and webzines was altered so that they rank lower in page results.

Keeping that in mind, recent reports that conservative websites New Media Journal, Jawa Report, and MichNews were removed from the news engine might not signify a liberal bias so much as another shift in managing the size of its database.

WorldNetDaily published Google’s response to the editor of So New Media, which says, “We received numerous reports about hate content on your site, and after reviewing these reports, decided to remove your site from Google News.”

While the term “hate content” is debatable, the important thing to note is Google acted in accordance with the wishes of its users. The articles flagged were poorly written, unprofessional, and typically filled with ad hominem attacks. “Brave Muslim warriors would rather dress as women and blow themselves up killing fellow Muslims praying in a mosque than face an American soldier,” writes Barbara Stock. Obviously, writing like that would never make it in the Wall Street Journal.

Stock could, however, write for WorldNetDaily, which also complained recently that Google didn’t celebrate Memorial Day with an appropriate holiday-related alteration of its logo, as it often does on other important dates. Suspected bias can be found when you’re looking out for it; then again, today could also be a good day for an Aquarius to prioritize his relationships.

Conservative websites aren’t the only ones experiencing a loss of traffic due to Google’s editing. KinderStart, a web index specifically tailored for children under the age of seven, filed a federal civil suit against Google in March. After Google downgraded its page rank, KinderStart watched traffic decline by 70%. Gregory Yu, KinderStart’s attorney, claims that Google is now an “essential facility,” and subject to free speech accusations. Most legal analysts agree that the case will not likely succeed. Ironically, the suit itself may bring more attention to the website than a better Google page rank.

Most of us would loathe a completely impartial web search engine. Think about what would happen if you needed to do a paper on avian flu: the top results would be spam sites with the word “Tamiflu” written hundreds of times. So we can’t fault Google for making editorial decisions. We can however, write in to request that Google News include some of our favorite websites (for instance, Brainwash, which still isn’t included).

Obviously, a red state vs. blue state search engine space race isn’t a plausible solution, but there are many existing alternatives. Yahoo, the Weather Channel, MSNBC, and CNN still top Google News in visit statistics. If you do not like the way Google curates its news, “walk” over to the next gallery.

Joanne McNeil is a writer is Chicago, IL. Her website is joannemcneil.com.

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