There's some buzz moving around the blogosphere that speculates on whether the left-leaning ideology behind one of the most popular search sites on the Internet may be tainting their ability to provide unbiased results through the Google News search engine and through the actual Google Web search. There's been speculation about this issue in the past, but it all started up again when the popular conservative blog Little Green Footballs claimed that it was booted due to its political content.

With the Little Green Footballs blog, it turned out that there were actually some duplicate content issues at play, but since then, news reports keep popping up about other sites that seem to be vanishing without reason. If this type of creative editing is really taking place on Google's part, it could have severe consequences for small business owners that earn their income from products that the staff at Google may not approve of.

From small-time news bloggers and informational sites to an online Christian bookstore or a hunting supply store, there are plenty of small businesses owners out there that make their living selling things that people of a certain political persuasion might find to be offensive. That means that even the possibility of a search engine making a moral call instead of an algorithmic call could prove disastrous to the future of the open online market.

With that in mind, and lacking anything more than anecdotal stories to make a case, it's important to view any allegations against Google with an open mind. While these types of incidents are keeping conservative blogs buzzing with conspiracy theories, it's also important to remember that although they are occasionally true, conspiracy theories are sometimes nothing more than speculation by someone looking for a problem that doesn't exist.

That said, let's start digging into some of the allegations.

The conservative news site Newsbusters points out the political bias with the following:

Yet, in the current instance, what is indeed odd is that some of the supposedly offensive content is still available at Google News even if some of the publishers aren't. Arlene Peck's "How Has Islam Enriched Your Life?" is still being promoted by Google News at even though it is no longer linked by Google News to The New Media Journal.

The same is true of Barbara Stock's "Islam is as Islam Does," which can still be found via Google News at Renew America. And, Amil Imani's "Islam: A False Religion" can still be found through Google News at Think and Ask.

It's going to be easy enough for those that know little about algorithms to read the above commentary and decide that Google is punishing certain sites for the content that they carry. Why else would Google ditch the sites of some of these authors? From the search engine side of things however, there are a couple of legitimate reasons to remove one source of content, but not another.

Looking at things from a search engine's perspective, why would Google list the author's site if they can pick up the same content on a more popular site that features works from multiple authors? After all, if Google wanted to remove the content because they felt it was offensive, wouldn't they have taken ALL of the links to the article down instead of just the links to particular sites?

There's a little concept in the SEO world known as "duplicate content" and it's pretty common knowledge among search marketers that Google's not real keen on it. In fact, it's one of the known pitfalls of syndicating your content to other web sites. A perfect example is our very own Search Engine Guide site. While we are a Google News source, some of our author's sites are not. That means that you can pick up their articles on Google News via Search Engine Guide, but that you won't be able to find links to that same article on the author's site.

That doesn't mean that Google has something against those authors, it simply means that Google sees no need to duplicate the content by including two sources if each source doesn't feature unique information. That's why small businesses that plan to syndicate content as a way of building link popularity need to consider the way that they go about sharing that content. It's usually a good idea to run the content on your own site first, so that Google has a chance to recognize that your site is the original publisher. Once Google has picked the story up, you should be able to safely share it with more popular sites without running the risk of your own site being discredited.

Another point being used to support the Google dislikes conservatives argument is the difficulty that conservative blogger Michelle Malkin had getting into Google News.

The problem is that Malkin isn't the only source that ran into this trouble. Again, our very own Search Engine Guide went several rounds with the Google News team to work through our credentials and get included as a source. I've heard time and time again from non-mainstream news outlets about the difficulties they've had getting listed as a Google News resource. Difficulty getting past the screening process doesn't necessarily mean that Google dislikes conservative blogs, it may simply mean that they're trying to screen all content to make sure that they are letting in only quality news sources. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.

With all of the above in mind, there are also enough good points being made on the conservative side of things to make some wonder if there isn't something just a little fishy going on...

The Conservative Voice says:

USA Today reported last year that 98% of contributions made in 2004 by Google employees to political parties went to Democrats, including a $25,000 donation by Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

How does Google treat leftist sites? Not with impartiality, that's for sure. MoveOn has been the recipient of more than $1 million from Google. To add to this, Al Gore, who looks to be making a stealth campaign for the presidency in 2008, is a senior advisor for Google. Democratic political analyst Susan Estrich has stated that Gore was rewarded with a nice chunk of Google shares for his "advice."

Now before I address the issue of all that money flying around, it's important to note that The Conservative Voice isn't exactly writing unbiased articles themselves. That snippet above has a nice little bit of editorial commentary thrown into it. The second paragraph asks "How does Google treat leftist sites? Not with impartiality, that's for sure," but never goes on to give any examples of this lack of impartiality. Instead, they count on the reader to come to their own conclusions by feeding them data about the company's Democratic leanings.

That said, we're still talking about a lot of money moving back and forth between Google and liberal causes. The company is well within their right to contribute to whomever they'd like...after all many large companies have a history of being heavy contributors to either the right or the left. What makes many wonder about a political tie-in in this case is the fact that Google isn't simply selling gasoline or serves as the window to online information and basically determines who gets viewed as a source of information and who doesn't. That's a mightly powerful role for one site to have.

Also coming into play is the fact that this wouldn't be the first time that the search engines hand manipulated the search results. One only has to consider the history of the search terms "scientology" or "Jew" to know that Google occasionally steps in and fudges the algorithmic results a little.

The major concern with this issue isn't simply that Google may be skewing news sources in favor of those that mesh with their own political opinions, it's the long-term implications for the main Google search results. I've written in the past about the potential power of search marketing when it comes to political campaigns and that fact hasn't been lost on these bloggers. Google has already come under some fire for refusing to run paid search ads from certain Christian organizations and bloggers have pointed out several similar incidents in the past few months when it comes to ads from conservative Republicans.

Providing a case in point, writer Jeff Johnson reported that Google has refused to run ads from a conservative web site owner while running nearly identical ads from a liberal web site. The ads in question linked to information about Republican Tom DeLay and Democrat Nancy Pelosi. The DeLay ads were allowed to run while the Pelosi ads were refused.

He noticed an anti-DeLay ad for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that stated, "The Truth About Tom DeLay - Learn about DeLay's many scandals and help us clean up the House!" Greene attempted to purchase a similar ad that stated, "Truth About Nancy Pelosi - Learn about Pelosi's many scandals and help us clean up the House!"

"That's all we did," Greene told Cybercast News Service. "We took the liberal ad and changed the words to make it a conservative ad."

But Google refused the ad.

"At this time, Google policy does not permit ad text that advocates against an individual, group or organization," Google wrote Greene on the administration page of his ad account. "As noted in our advertising terms and conditions, we reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site."

"Well, that's great! They're a private organization, they can certainly make that decision" Greene said. "But then we looked, and all the anti-DeLay ads were still up, including the one we had copied word-for-word except that we changed the name."

Asked about the nearly identical ads, Mayzel said, "Both ads were taken down. Any assertion to the contrary is false."

Interesting enough at the time of this writing, I counted two anti-DeLay ads and one anti-Bush ad that appear when I search for the phrase Tom DeLay. When I search for the term Nancy Pelosi, I get the same anti-Bush ad and a pro-democrat ad. In fact, I ran searches for William Jefferson, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy and also found zero negative ads. In fact, I couldn't come up with a single Democrat that threw a negative ad...though Jesse Jackson did spark an ad for "sexy Jewish women."

While it's quite possible that Google "missed" those negative DeLay ads this time around, or that there are zero AdWords advertisers that dislike Democrats, the ads that are running, or that are not running, are enough to make one wonder if Google isn't doing a little bit of favorite playing.

The real issue here isn't simply that Google may or may not be showing a little bit of political favor toward the sites that they agree with. It's that they may be letting their own beliefs cloud their ability to serve up unbiased results. If that were to happen, the quality of Google's results would clearly be compromised and small business owners everywhere would suddenly have to balance their desire to sell certain products or provide certain information with their need to be indexed by the most popular search engine on the Internet.

No matter what is actually going on here, there are two clear sides to the issue that need to be considered. The first is that Google is a private business and is under no legal obligation to provide traffic or even indexing to any particular site. The second is that Internet users rely on search engines as a source of unbiased information which should mean that engines such as Google have a moral obligation to provide unfettered access to a wide variety of products, services and opinions.

On the first point, it's important to remember that it's not in Google's best interest to start playing favorite with any one type of site. As a private business, Google is well within their rights to deliver whatever type of content they'd like. After all, news outlets decide which stories they'd like to run and retail outlets decide what products they'll carry. A news outlet or a search engine that becomes too clearly biased risks losing a large portion of their audience. That means that it's in Google's best interest to continue providing unbiased results.

On the other hand, it's not unheard of for a company to decide that they'd like to cater to one side of the political spectrum and to simply not worry about the customers that they're losing. Any political junkie knows that CNN skews to the left and that Fox News skews to the right and that both are quite content catering to their preferred demographic. There's nothing to say that search engines couldn't eventually go the way of the news media and divide themselves amongst political camps.

What this really continues to prove however is the need for companies both big and small to diversify their traffic sources. Companies survived just fine before Google and they should be able to survive without Google. It's easy enough to get comfortable with the free traffic that can come with a good Google ranking and to start dropping your budget for other advertising sources, but a savvy small business owner will recognize that anything free could have a limited shelf life. Whether you believe that Google may kick you out due to the political content of your site or simply because of an algorithmic change, the reality is that every business needs to make sure that their traffic sources are diverse enough to survive the loss of any one source. That's just good business sense.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

May 24, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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