Google's Search Algorithm Affects Our Lives in More Ways Than One [A Deep Dive]
Founder of Avidon Marketing Group, an award-winning digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.
For better or for worse, Google has become one of the biggest vendors of information in the world. Its library of search results shape and/or reaffirm opinions on a daily basis. The search giant's algorithm dictates what information searchers receive and thus has a direct impact on every person's knowledge base and understanding of numerous topics.
When Google shakes up its algorithm, most people who are not working at an SEO agency
or an in-house marketing team (basically 99.99999% of the world's population) won't notice. Chances are, you don't even know anyone who can correctly explain "how Google works".
Google knows that quality of search results matter, and in their attempt to refine them, it pushes out algorithm updates big and small daily. Even small adjustments to their algorithm can drastically change which information is most visible to searchers.
Knowing this, search engine optimization professionals adapt their strategy to help their clients stay on top under the new criteria. But what does this mean for the average Google User
Unfortunately, these changes are hard to account for in general search results. Algorithm changes may favor some factors more than they used to, while devaluing other factors. As a result, highly relevant websites may lose their well-deserved top spot to lower quality sources that have better optimization (or were better promoted).
This is the concern. If someone wanted to change an opinion, sell a lifestyle, or spread misinformation, it could be accomplished (sometimes with surprising ease) by pumping in enough time and money into optimizing their content to gain favor from the algorithm over other — and potentially more relevant — sources.
To really understand the impact these changes could have, you need to consider the massive scope in which Google is used. People use it to inform their decisions on everything from where to eat, what to buy, and who to vote for.
We check the weather, keep up with current events, and look for information on everything from favorite TV shows to DIY auto repairs. For many of us, it would be difficult to pinpoint something in our lives that is not influenced in some way by Google.
Therefore, we're potentially affected in major ways by the subtle shift in search results produced with each change to the algorithm.
Writing for Search Engine Optimization
To be successful online, brands and websites must be created with consideration for search engines, including the content they produce. As a result, the content created by these brands is often biased and promotional. This is not disclosed to the reader more often than not.
It is important to remember that web content has two goals: appear at the top of the search results, and promote the brand, opinion, or agenda of the content creator or business. Read differently, this means that the content is created with the intent to influence its readers in one way or another.
Since many people associate the highest ranking results with a level of higher quality, securing a top spot in Google’s search results could allow a company to sell a low quality or knock-off product in large quantities. They can also collect mass amounts of user data through newsletter sign-ups, contact forms, or unsecured payment processing pages.
Coming out on the top of the search results can also help companies dominate a market, creating a kind of monopoly as its presence forces competitors down the list and even off the first page of results. This can create the perfect environment for unscrupulous business tactics, such as unfair pricing, false market scarcity, and more.
Selling a Lifestyle
Regardless of what kind of content you consume online, it likely promotes some sort of bias or alignment. And whether you notice it or not, you are being influenced by that bias.
Top-ranked content can affect everything, from the brands you are most likely to buy to the things you believe in. It can even influence the health and lifestyle choices you make.
That is an immense amount of influence to have over one person. Factor in that nearly everyone is being affected by these biases to some extent, and the impact is immeasurable.
Manipulating the algorithm impacts consumer trends, influences the success of new products and technologies as users may be more likely to trust and purchase a brand that ranked high or appeared often in Google search results.
Through the same manipulation of Google’s algorithm, users, groups, and organizations can spread and promote their political ideologies through biased media and misinformation, potentially influencing the opinion of countless users on hot button issues and impacting the political landscape.
Using effective SEO practices, users could knowingly promote the spread of false information to discredit a political candidate, or to misinform voters into passing legislation with negative implications they didn't understand.
Seeding misinformation like this could have a direct impact on laws surrounding controversial topics including abortion, gun control, vaccinations, and more, and poses a real threat to the democratic process.
Impacting Financial and Economic Decisions
Many Google search results feature a preview of a top search result in a Featured Snippet at the top of the page that is likely to be seen by a huge number of Google users.
While this feature is typically a useful way to quickly gain some insight into a topic, it can also accidentally promote bad advice or make opinion seem like fact, which can be dangerous and misleading. This is especially true for topics in the health and finance realm, where one size most definitely does not fit all users.
What may even be popular, well-meaning advice — like not to carry a balance on your credit accounts — will likely require a second opinion. It could be the wrong move for your personal financial situation.
Unfortunately, when these biased blanket statements take the top places in the search results, they are likely to be seen and adopted by millions of people. That might go beyond negatively impacting their financial situation – it can affect the economy as a whole.
Affecting Your Health
One of the most heavily-researched topics on Google are related to health. Hundreds of thousands of searchers are getting their health, nutrition, and exercise advice from Google's search results.
This isn’t inherently a bad decision, but it’s easy to get caught in an echo chamber promoting a certain diet or lifestyle. Much of these can be snake oil sales pitches – and can even promote unhealthy eating habits.
It’s also dangerously easy to find information re-enforcing any pre-existing biases we have, with websites that will sell almost anything as a magical cure-all, and misleading health blogs that make dangerously false claims about things like vaccination risks, weight loss, and mental health.
Do Your Research Well No Matter What
It's important to keep in mind that Google is a powerful undercurrent that dictates much of what we learn every day. Even in content that is not actively trying to promote something or push an opinion, everything we consume helps form our opinions and view of the world, contributing to our personal biases.
There is not much doubt in my mind that Google genuinely put in a lot of effort to eliminate low quality, spam content that could be harmful to searchers.
However, the issue here is not content with glaring problems (such as hate speech or dangerous health advice).
The real concern is content that influences our long-term opinions and/or actions ever so slightly by offering mildly biased info OR by omitting important info that opposes their message.
Make sure to educate yourself on how Google works and how it ranks pages in its index first. Then, source your information from various sources, including other search engines as well as trustworthy websites in the industry your topic falls under.
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