President Donald Trump is right. Based on our extremely unscientific sample data, searching for “Trump news” on Google pulls up results from media outlets that have a reputation for being antagonistic to the president — CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times.
But Mr. Trump also is wrong about why that seems to be the case. It’s not because Google search results are “rigged,” as the president claimed on Twitter this week. Rather, they’re based on a complex algorithm so tightly guarded that even experts struggle to uncover its secrets.
In fact, if someone knows how to rig Google’s search results, let us know. We can always use the extra online traffic.
Google has made it clear, however, that when it comes to news, its algorithms value quality of content and authority of source, among dozens of other factors. It also places a premium on how often other websites cite a particular piece of content.
That might explain why “Fake CNN” generally ranks more highly than, say, Infowars.
But the president is right to be concerned about the tremendous power Google carries as a gatekeeper of information. Some studies show that as much as 75 percent of search engine clicks go to the first result. That number drops off sharply as results drop farther down the page. If a result is on the second page, forget it.
And Google handles as much as 90 percent of all search traffic worldwide.
So if a story doesn’t rank at or near the top of Google’s search results, it’s not likely to get as many readers as it might otherwise with a better ranking. Of course, that’s increasingly irrelevant as more and more people get their news from social media.
But it’s still important.
Mr. Trump is almost certainly wrong that “Google and others are suppressing voices of conservatives and hiding information and news that is good,” as he tweeted on Tuesday. Above all, Google is a business, and shutting out roughly half of the population doesn’t make business sense.
People use Google because they generally find its search results useful, and Google makes money when people see ads on its results pages. If conservatives aren’t getting the results they want, they’re likely to look elsewhere, meaning lost revenue for Google.
To be sure, there are biases in Google’s algorithms. They were created by humans, and everything created by humans has bias. It’s just extremely unlikely that Google set out to intentionally undermine the president.
But Mr. Trump is right that there’s a problem.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and a handful of other companies effectively control online media. They are increasingly gatekeepers of news and shape public opinion. Their leaders say that remaining content-neutral is a top priority, but that seems like a troublingly hollow promise.
Regulating online giants in the pursuit of perceived fairness, as one of Mr. Trump’s advisers suggested Wednesday, would not be a good idea. It would be a slippery slope toward China-style suppression of free speech.
Federal regulators could consider using anti-trust policies to break Google, Facebook and Twitter into smaller entities with less market dominance. We also could just wait until something better comes along, which has so far been the natural progression online.
But if conservatives aren’t pleased with what Google can offer, the best solution would be to build a better search engine. While the obvious downside is the possible creation of yet another political echo chamber, it would be better than flirting with censorship.