Google’s Algorithmic Results are Inadvertently Putting Its Thumb on the Scale for California Voters Doing Proposition Searches

[11/2/20 9pm They restored the Prop 24 page with the nosnippet, but they did not kick off a re-index, so the Google search result shows the biased Con argument as the snippet for this one Prop. So back to where we were last week with CA SoS still showing a biased Pro or Con argument for at least one of the props. 11/2/20 925pm — FINALLY they kicked off the re-index and we finally have no biased Google snippet results associated with the CA SoS Voter Information Guide website. ]

Executive Summary

California has 12 ballot measures (aka Propositions) on the ballot and over $643 million has been raised in support and opposition to these Props. California voters are being asked to sort through ballot measures ranging from stem cells to kidney dialysis to rent control to affirmative action to reforming the bail system.  So naturally voters are Googling the Propositions to learn more about them and consider the Pros and Cons of each ballot measure to figure out how they should vote. 

Unfortunately, Google’s algorithmic results have been returning snippets (i.e. website descriptions that appear in Google search results) that favor one proposition or another from the top ranking websites who are looked to be trusted and unbiased sources of voter information.  It first happened with Ballotpedia (typically one of the top search results when you Google a California Proposition) which was corrected in October after I had flagged it with Ballotpedia back in September. It is now happening with the Voter Information Guide website from the California Secretary of Site (typically the top site returned by Google if you search for a given Proposition, e.g. Prop 14). 

My concern is that the snippets that return Pro or Con language may subtly influence voters that this neutral Secretary of State web site is taking sides.

I reported this to the California Secretary of State, and given it is nearing 24 hours and I did not hear back, and given we are so close to election (writing this on 10/28 at 12 noon) with already 35%+ of the votes in per one estimate, I figured it made sense to alert voters via this blog post that they may be subtly influenced by Google search results.  When I notified Ballotpedia back in September on this matter I had also alerted Google a few times, but never heard back from Google.  The workaround which Ballotpedia implemented for its California Proposition pages is to add the “nosnippet” attribute in a given webpage’s HTML code to block Google from creating a snippet from the Pro and/or Con section of the website

I am not saying either Google or the California Secretary of State is intentional showing search results that favor one side of a Proposition or another. I am saying the current search results from the California Secretary of State’s Official Voter Information Guide (https://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/) will subtly favor one side or another in nearly half the Google searches on California Propositions.   

Nitty-Gritty Details

California has 12 ballot measures on the ballot this November.  One of the top websites that is returned when you google variations of a Proposition (e.g. Prop 14, “Prop 14”, Proposition 14, “Proposition 14”) is the California Secretary of State Voter Information Guide (SoSVIG) website (here is the section of the Voter Information Guide for the Propositions).  In the case of these four Google search variations of Proposition 14, the SoSVIG was the #1 returned site in 3 instances and the #3 in the 4th instance (I searched using Incognito mode as of 10/27/20 at 10:20 pm).

So, let’s take a look at the search results for “Prop 14”:

Note the Ballotpedia and Calmatters (the #2 and #3 search result) have neutral descriptions (called “Snippets”) of the respective web pages.  But the first result, the SoSVIG, provided the Pro arguments, so at a glance the person search is being fed a “Pro” argument coming from what is a suppose to be a neutral website.  It would be better to have the Google search results return the first sentence of the Summary in the SoSVIG:  “Authorizes $5.5 billion state bonds for: stem cell and other medical research, including training; research facility construction; administrative costs.”

Next up is Prop 15, and again the SoSVIG is the top result, and if you look at the search result that voters see when you Google Proposition 15 you will see it promotes the Con case as the first impression that voters get:

But if you Google Prop 15, it gives you the Pro result as the snippet

In the table below I took the search results for all the Props, and you can see the results. Namely Props 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21 and 24 are having their Google search results tip to either Pro or Con arguments on the SoSVG web site. i.e. 7 of 12 are impacted/influenced.

In the end 54% of the search results with the SoSVIG is showing a neutral and unbiased Google search result, meaning 46% of the top variations of searching on a Proposition (e.g. Prop 14 or Proposition 14) in Google will display a Pro or Con message.

It gets a bit wackier if you Google the Propositions with double-quotes, e.g. Proposition 15 returns the Pro snippet while “Proposition 15” returns the Con snippet. Not sure why the Google algorithm is doing that.

How to Workaround This

This is an algorithmic result and it appears to not be something deliberate. Website such as the SoSVIG can follow the instructions at this link:  https://developers.google.com/search/reference/robots_meta_tag#data-nosnippet-attr, which includes instructions for blocking the snippet pending a re-crawl of the site.  I would urge the California Secretary of State implement this quick and easy fix ASAP — as the Google web page says “You can designate textual parts of a HTML page not to be used as a snippet.”  Otherwise many voters will be getting biased search results associated the SoSVIG web site, and there is no doubt that the SoS does not want the sniff of favoritism, especially in light of the high stakes (again over $600m spent on the Proposition battles!)

I noticed this with Proposition search results coming for Ballotpedia back in September (which is usually the #1 or #2 returned search result from Google), and after a few weeks of back and forth with Ballotpedia, I did influence them to implement this recommended workaround/fix and they were able to resolve this in early October.  i.e. they added the nosnippet attribute approximately 9 times to each of its California Proposition pages.  I just became aware of this issue in the last 24 hours with the California Secretary of State Voter Information Guide website, although I am not sure how long Google was displaying search results from the SoSVIG that showed bias towards a Yes on No on a given Proposition. i.e. this could have been happening for a while.  I did immediately email the feedback address when I saw this issue.

Whose Issue is This?

Obviously algorithms control the information we see from Google search results, and most consumers will assume there is no bias from the results they see, and therefore may not test or question the results.   I did report this to Google in September via their search result feedback button, and given that this was an election-related issue, maybe Google should have flagged this reported feedback and communicated to any websites that act as neutral providers of voter information (e.g. Secretary of State offices across the US) that they need to implement this workaround using the nosnippet attribute.  Or better yet, Google should have changed their algorithm to not show sentences in the snippets that start with Pro or Con arguments for any web pages that are election-oriented government pages such as their Ballot Measure pages. Google probably should have done a better job of seeing how their search results appear from searches that hit Secretary of State websites.

And maybe the California Secretary of State should have tested and viewed what the end user sees when their website comes up in Google search results. I hope they implement this workaround ASAP so the search results associated with their Voter Information Guide website are neutral for all Proposition-related searches. After they implement the workaround they then need to kick off a re-indexing of their site.

I also really hope that this has not inadvertently influenced any voters who may have felt that the California Secretary of State favors a Pro or Con position on a given ballot initiative when a voter is doing a quick and dirty search as part of their voting research.      

I have not spent any time looking at any other States’ official voter sites, and given that there are 120 State ballot measures across 32 States, there is no doubt that this problem is likely impacting other Secretary of State websites and introducing bias.

Update 10/28/20 3:15pm: Others Raise Flag

Ashkan Soltani, the former CTO of the FTC, commented on this blog post:

Update 10/29/20 11:43am: SoS is Working on Problem

Heard indirectly from SoS office that CTO and IT are aware of the problem with Google and are working toward a solution.  Spoke with Katy Murphy from Politico this morning and she got similar feedback. But problem still exists and I don’t see “nosnippet” in the source pages.

Update 10/29/20 2pm: Spoke to SoS, they are working on workaround to Google’s algorithm

But no ETA. They reached out to me, which was nice of them. Note from a public policy point of view, it should not be all on government agencies needing to do something to their publicly available information in order to make it easier for Google. So if blame were to be assigned, it should rest moreso on Google than SoS offices having to know the intricacies of page level settings.

Update 10/29/20 3:05pm: Getting Elected Official Attention

This has come to the attention of State Senator Henry Stern, who is on the California Senate Elections committee.

Update 10/29/20 6pm: SoSVIG Prop pages are updated with nosnippets but their implementation now blocks any descriptions being returned by Google searches

Good and Bad news I guess. The Cal SoS has updated the Voter Information Guide website so that each Proposition page has 2 nosnippets added to block what text can be displayed as a snippet by Google. But it appears they decided to “no snippet” basically the entire Proposition page, so people searching won’t see any description when they Google a Proposition. Maybe that is one way to go about being neutral, i.e. to not show any information to voters including a simple description of the Proposition.

e.g. what you previously saw if you Google’d Prop 15

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-4.png

that unfortunately shows the Pro argument.

This is what you now see when you Google Prop 15 … no snippet description!

Same if you search for Proposition 15 (vs. Prop 15)

If you compare this result to Ballotpedia’s Google result (and BTW, Ballotpedia had the same problem with each California Prop page until early October, but they added 8-10 nosnippets on each page to allow some text to be displayed by Google), you actually see the Proposition description in the search result.

So the Good news is that there is no more biased Google descriptions being shown with each SoSVIG Proposition page.

The Bad news is that their workaround implementation does not add that much value to voters in figuring at the highest level what a given Proposition is about. So voters will probably be more likely to not go to the SoSVIG page and go to say Ballotpedia. And it is a bit weird that the Google search result for say Prop 15 references Prop 16, so voters may scratch their heads.

I assume the SoS folks are probably scrambling a bit on this, but it would be better if Google stepped in here and enhanced their algorithm and also provided better guidance to the Cal SoS office to have their Google search results display something from the SoS office that has value to voters.

Update 10/29/20 930pm: Politico Covers this Issue

The article is here paywalled, but here are some clips:

Google algorithms are being blamed for producing biased excerpts from the state’s official election guide when California voters search for information on ballot measures this fall, raising new concerns about the outsize influence of tech platforms.

Google searches for seven of the state’s 12 ballot proposals, on subjects ranging from stem-cell research to commercial property taxes, turned up arguments either for or against those measures in the text appearing within the state voter guide, said former cybersecurity executive Thomas Kemp. He said that could sway voters who may rely on those first impressions to understand what the measures do.

,,,

Kemp said he noticed earlier this fall that Google searches were turning up one-sided snippets next to Ballotpedia links and that he alerted the organization something was awry. A spokesperson for the organization said that after Kemp raised the issue, its team used a coding workaround that directs the search engine to pull descriptive text from the neutral portions of its site.

Update 10/30/20 920am: I react to Google’s statement to Politico

Google said this in the Politico article:

Google maintains that its systems don’t understand language in the same way people do and that it would be inappropriate to set a blanket block on such arguments anyway, as some posts are meant to advance a point of view. A spokesperson for the company pointed to tools that website managers could use to block certain material from being used in search result excerpts and noted that it has trained various organizations, including staffers from the California secretary of state’s office, on how to use them.

I thought this viewpoint was wrong on multiple levels and wrote a new blog post to address.

Update 10/30/20 1:30pm: SoS further updates web site so just the page title is shown

The SoS web team has further updated the Proposition pages to not display anything associated with a result from a Proposition. i.e. as of last night they would display a line under the web page title with “Arguments and Rebuttals” etc. — and I thought it confusing to reference the next up Proposition (see highlight below):

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-15.png

But now they further removed even the Arguments and Rebuttals etc. So a search of say Prop 19 now just shows this search result — completing removing anything but the name of the page:

I guess they wanted to be even more conservative and not even bring up a link to Arguments and Rebuttal etc.

I think the drawback of what the SoS is displaying now is because the other surrounding search results have descriptions, voters will be less likely to visit the SoS Voter Information Guide site. But they are probably overly worried about providing any additional information that could be construed as showing favoritism.

Kudos to the SoS team for reaching out to me to close the loop. As I state in this blog, I am in the camp that this is a Google issue moreso than any county or Secretary of State election office.

Update 11/2/2020 234pm PST: Incredibly, the Prop 24 page has had the nosnippet removed from the HTML, showing again the biased Google search snippet result

In the world of 2020 and its constant “You Gotta Be Kidding Me”, I Google’d some of the Propositions again, and the problem has been reintroduced for Proposition 24. Which is ironic, as Prop 24 looks to regulate … Google and other Big Tech companies.

So here is the Google search of Proposition 24 (with a deceptive Con argument)

And if you Google Prop 24 the same CON argument shows up, again putting the thumb on the scale against Prop 24 by a neutral site.

Compare that to say Prop 16 etc.

The Prop 16 source page (view-source:https://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/propositions/16/) has the nosnippet at the top

As does Prop 17, 18, etc.

But not Prop 24 source page at view-source:https://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/propositions/24/

Urgh …..

Update 11/2 2:51pm PST: SoS says they have forwarded the problem on to the tech people

Update 11/2/20 6:02 pm PST: Prop 24 web page is not accessible on SoS website

Well, it kinda gets worse.

If you Google proposition 24, the good news is that there is no biased snippet return.

The bad news is if you click the link, it downloads the html file, i.e. you can NOT access the Prop 24 web page from the Secretary of State the night before election.

The further bad news is if you Google prop 24, you get the biased argument appearing.

Update as I am typing, I just re-Googled prop 24, and the good news is you get the same result as proposition 24, i.e. a simple line.

But you can no longer access the actual web page.

Update 11/2/20 8pm: Web page is back online, but with no nosnippet

The Prop 24 web page on the SoS site is back online, i.e. accessible. But the source shows no nosnippet. So if Google re-indexes the page between now and polls closed, voters will likely see the biased snippet.

Update 11/2/20 8:01 pm: Similar issue happened with Nevada back in September, Google knew, but appears to not alert other election officials in other states

Will followup with this, but it appears that Google was aware of a comparable issue back in September with Nevada per a Washington Post article:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/19/google-search-results-monopoly/

Will comment on this later in my other post on Google’s reaction.

Update 11/2/20 9pm: The Prop 24 page is back with the nosnippet, but SoS did not kick off the reindex of the page (or is awaiting Google to index), so it shows biased result

This is painful. They added back the nosnippet to the Prop 24 page, but because the page has not been re-indexed, the Google search results show …

They need to kick off a re-index of the page in the Google console OR maybe the re-index is queued up with Google.

Bottom line is that a voter will see a Con argument emanating from the SoS web page if they Google Prop 24.

Update 11/2/20 9:25pm PST: They kicked off the re-index and the snippet is no longer biased.

Beats a poke in the eye.

BUT … think over the last week or so of the 10s of thousands of voters who saw the SoS Voter Information Guide serve up the pro or con argument as the first impression for a given Proposition. Sad.

*****And Google knew of this problem back in September **** as it was happening in Nevada with a related snippet feature. But somehow it was left to yours truly to tell the largest national voter information site (Ballotpedia) and the nation’s largest Secretary of State office (California) that they had this problem and how to fix it.

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