What Google Gets Wrong About this Biased Election Search Results Issue

As I detailed in this blog post, the Google search algorithm are unfortunately serving up Pro or Con arguments associated with California Propositions as their search results from what are designed to be trusted and neutral election sites (e.g. Ballotpedia and the California Secretary of State Voter Information Guide website). In doing so, the algorithms are subtly and inadvertently putting their thumb on the scale and influencing voters by giving the impression that these authoritative and unbiased sites — which also are typically the top search results to a given query — favor a Pro or Con position on a given Ballot Measure. Politico did a nice job of covering my research on this (article no longer paywalled!).

For example, if one were to Google Prop 15, voters would see the Pro argument stick out to voters as the “snippet” associated with the search results for the California Secretary of State Voter Information Guide website, but if they were to Google say Prop 24, they saw the Con argument. Check out what was returned when searching on Prop 15 and you can see that the Pro argument is the 2 line description (aka snippet) being associated with the search result.

There is a workaround that websites can use to block sections of website text from being used as the snippet. Typically ballot measures in Voter Guides have sections containing Pro and Con arguments, so in theory the web site developer would put this “nosnippet” attributes in the HTML code surrounding sections that they would not want to appear as a search result snippet.

My flagging of this issue lead to the top two sites for California voter information (Ballotpedia and the California Secretary of State Voter Information Guide website) to change each and every one of its pages for California Propositions to implement this workaround. Politico reported that Ballotpedia changed 650 web pages to workaround the Google algorithm:

Kemp, former CEO of the cybersecurity firm Centrify, said he worked with Ballotpedia last month to correct a similar problem potentially affecting Google searches for measures nationwide. The organization confirmed his involvement and said it completed a technical fix as of Oct. 6 for all 650 state and local campaigns it is tracking.

But given that there are over 100 Ballot initiatives across 30 States in the 2020 election cycle, and probably 1000s of County and School Board measures, no doubt this problem exists across the board with other Secretary of State and County voter information sites from which Google returns search results from.

This of course puts the onus on each and every neutral election and voter site to be aware of this workaround to the Google algorithm and to program this workaround on each and every one of its pages that have Pro or Con arguments about a given election issue. So Government agencies have to publish and program its voter education material (vs. simply just publish it) to satisfy Google’s algorithms to not inadvertently introduce bias in how voters will initially view their content.

For voter information sites that don’t program their sites to Google’s algorithm and implement the workarounds to it, it sets up a situation where it incents proponents or opponents of Ballot Measures to potentially optimize their submitted Pro or Con arguments not to voters, but to the Google algorithm, so that their argument becomes what the search results display. Meaning drafting of a proponents or opponents argument will become the equivalent of optimizing for SEO and the wording of the arguments will be meant more for the Google algorithm vs. educating the voters, as there is great advantage to have in effect a free “Pro” or “Con” ad be organically returned as the top search result.

Given the issues the US had as it relates to our 2016 election with fake news, foreign intervention, etc., Google clearly knows and has known it is paramount that voters get trusted and unbiased sources of information re: our election including important State ballot measures. Google also knows that in effect its platform has become the world’s Voter Information Guide, i.e. Google has enormous influence on, well, influencing voters. And it is not some startup, it is one of the world’s richest and most powerful corporations in the history of the world, and should realize that with such power comes some responsibility.

Which leads me to Google’s response to the Politico article that details what I found in my research:

“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.”

Let me poke some big holes on what Google’s position is. Let me work from the bottom up.

By saying that Google “noted that it has trained various organizations, including staffers from the California secretary of state’s office, on how to use them” they are first throwing the California SoS people under the bus. But the reality is that Ballotpedia, the nation’s largest and trusted website that covers over 1000 State and Federal elections, did not know about this and did not implement this until I flagged this to them. In addition, the US’ largest State and their corresponding Secretary of State (California) did not know about this and did not implement this until I flagged it to them. So it means that Google’s training probably, well, was not effective. And I don’t see the “Google Guide for Secretary of State and Elections Officials” published anywhere. No doubt Google had an army of people working on selling Ads to campaigns, did they put the same sized team on helping beleaguered election offices properly digitize their voters guide on their websites?

And why should Google have to go around and train everyone. Each county in the US has its own election, so we are talking 1000+ counties and 50 states etc. Why can’t Google write the algorithm that if it is indexing a Government election site that it avoids Pro and Con sections to draw the snippet from. Google writes algorithms to serve me up an ad optimized on 1000s of points of data on me, it can surely figure out when it indexes a Secretary of State site to focus on snippets being generated from the first sentence description of a ballot measure. They could have had a summer intern catalogue all the State and County voter information websites this summer, and had a half-time engineer do some analysis of these web pages and try to do a better job for these type of websites of tip toeing around Pro and Con arguments.

In other words, these websites are crucial to our Democracy, don’t treat them like indexing my blog.

Finally, regarding Google’s comment that it is “inappropriate to set a blanket block on such arguments anyway, as some posts are meant to advance a point of view”.

Sorry, No. In this instance, and for our Democracy’s sake, we don’t want a point of view advanced for what are designed to be neutral voter information sites. When you receive your Voter Information Guide from your State Secretary of State in the mail, on the front page there is not a not a 2 sentence description that says Prop XYZ is great!

So Google is completely missing the point, there are some web pages that we don’t want to “advance a point of view.” There are some websites that we want to be neutral! Google does not get that the indexing of every web page should not be meant “to advance a point of view.” We don’t want Pro or Con arguments selected by your algorithm as the lead search result from the Secretary of State’s websites.

These sites should be treated and indexed differently than my blog. Our Democracy should not have to bend or workaround an algorithm. An intern could catalogue each and every election site in a month or so, and an engineer could be told to treat them a bit differently.

Google has become the de facto Voter Information Guide, and more and more voters are going to use Google vs. the Guides that Secretary of State and County offices mail to voters. Google should realize that, and focus more on delivering neutral and unbiased search results to voters, especially those sites that are run by local and State Governments.

One comment

  1. […] [Update 10/29/20 6pm — Cal SoS Voter Information Guide Website is updated with nosnippet code added to workaround the Google algorithm issue BUT the SoS website search results now show NO descriptive information to voters. Update 10/29/20 930pm — Politico’s Katy Murphy has written an article covering these findings. Update 10/30/20 917a.m. — Google’s response in the Politico article shows they don’t get it, I blog about it here: What Google Gets Wrong About this Biased Election Search Results Issue.] […]

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