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Search engine optimization or political bias? Biden challengers nearly nonexistent in Google results

Biden and token Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson place higher than Republicans in searches for GOP candidates. SEO expert offers nonpartisan explanations.

Published: September 28, 2023 11:05pm

Republican presidential candidates' websites are practically nonexistent in generic Google searches for the party's 2024 bench, and not much better for the most viable primary challenger to Democratic President Biden, according to tests by a watchdog and Just the News.

For the conservative Media Research Center and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), it's unmistakable evidence of Google's bias for the incumbent just as primary voters are seeking more information about the candidates on the debate stage.

“Google is either the most incompetent search engine on the planet, or it is intentional. This is not a coincidence," MRC Free Speech America Vice President Dan Schneider said in the group's analysis of its Sept. 20 and 25 tests, published hours before Wednesday's televised GOP presidential debate.

For search engine optimization (SEO) researcher Eric Goldman, co-director of Santa Clara University's High Tech Law Institute, "[o]ne of the least likely explanations is that Google is hacking these results to steer the election." 

He gave Just the News a handful of benign possibilities to explain the curious results.

"Search engine indexing and ordering is the kind of topic that would benefit from a proper academic study, not an advocacy stunt," Goldman wrote in an email, referring to MRC's tests.

Google told Just the News on Thursday that it couldn't attempt to explain until Friday the puzzling results, which also put Democrats higher than Republicans when searching for the latter.

The additional scrutiny from the political right comes at a particularly bad time for the world's dominant search engine. 

Whatever the result in the Justice Department's ongoing antitrust trial against Google, the company has already suffered a public black eye from revelation of its executives' embarrassing explanations of how the company cements its search dominance but speaks in code to minimize it.

Google is also a defendant in Democratic candidate and vaccine-skeptic activist Robert F. Kennedy's censorship lawsuit, though a federal judge denied his motion for a temporary restraining order last month, finding the removal of his YouTube videos did not "irreparably harm" him.

"Google poses a serious threat to democracy," former Psychology Today editor-in-chief and social media researcher Robert Epstein testified before the Arizona Legislature this month in a hearing on Big Tech election interference.

He said Google "can tell us to a high degree of certainty how many people are going to vote, how they’re going to vote, and who’s going to win."

Epstein runs an ongoing opt-in project that he told Just the News "monitors Big Tech content 24 hours a day through the computers of a politically-balanced group of 11,749 registered voters in all 50 states," which has thus far preserved "more than 45 million ephemeral experiences" that document how Big Tech manipulates elections.

Just the News largely replicated MRC's non-personalized tests while adding logged-in searches, which are influenced by search history and tracking cookies, to see whether they made a difference.

The two forms of searches also differ in how results are presented.

Google's incognito mode continually loads new results to the first page for several scrolls down, while users receive 10-result static pages while logged in.

Only GOP presidential candidate and former congressman Will Hurd – a prominent critic of former President Trump and polling dead last in FiveThirtyEight's Sept. 27 GOP average – appeared in non-paid search results for "Republican presidential campaign websites" within several incognito scrolls, the 25th result overall. He was on Page 3 while logged in.

For other GOP candidates: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis showed up more than halfway down first-page incognito scrolling (40th), and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was at the very end (59th).

Ramaswamy's paid ad placed slightly higher than Hurd's organic listing. While logged in, DeSantis was on Page 4, Ramaswamy Page 6 and Sen. Tim Scott on Page 8, closely followed by former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's personal office.

Also in the Republican search, Democrat self-help author Marianne Williamson – not even listed in FiveThirtyEight's Democratic poll and 10 percentage points behind Kennedy in RealClearPolitics' Sept. 9-19 Democratic average – showed up ahead of Hurd incognito and just behind him logged in.

She was second to President Biden's No. 1 slot on "democrat presidential campaign websites" both incognito and logged in. Kennedy (46th) was behind Clinton's office (12th), Elizabeth Warren's Senate campaign (18th) and Sen. Bernie Sanders' personal website (29th and 31st).

Kennedy jumped to the 10th spot in the party-free search "presidential campaign websites," enough to reach the first page logged in, still behind Williamson (6th) and Biden (2nd). The first Republican in those results: DeSantis at 34th and Page 4.

SEO researcher Goldman said MRC's search queries were "not representative" and likely "low-volume," and the GOP candidates' domain names and websites may not be "SEO'd for those terms." Political campaigns often have trouble following best practices, as with emails that routinely go to spam, he told Just the News.

Because many were created relatively recently, the GOP websites "haven't had time to build a broad and deep network of inbound links from trusted third-party sites," compared to higher-ranking mainstream news coverage of the candidates that MRC called biased, Goldman said.

While decades of scrutiny have failed to find "smoking gun evidence" of bias in Google's ranking algorithm, Goldman credited Elon Musk with bringing such risks to the fore by "seemingly preferenc[ing] his political views" on X, formerly Twitter, after his purchase.

Psychologist Epstein sees far more than theoretical risks. He shared a "confidential progress report" with Just the News from his Digital Shield project, which started tracking ephemeral experiences days before the midterm elections.

It has found "substantial liberal bias in Google search results" but not Microsoft's Bing, twice as much liberal bias in YouTube's news-related video suggestions (75%) as news videos in general, "significantly more go-vote reminders sent to liberals than to conservatives on Google’s home page on Election Day" and far more election updates Twitter gave liberals compared to conservatives.

Over time, the project "will release more detailed data, along with state-by-state and race-by-race analyses," the report states.

Epstein asked Just the News not to publish it.

He also pointed to his peer-reviewed research dating to 2015 on the power of search engines, digital "personal assistants and answer boxes" and targeted Twitter messages to "shift opinions and votes."

Epstein has preprint research awaiting peer review on how Google's search suggestions, YouTube and online quizzes can shift opinions and votes.

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