For the past 20 years, my wife and I have been helping companies improve their natural referencing, i.e. their presence in the search engine results. Today, this expertise is called « SEO » (Search Engine Optimization). It led me to take a close look at the way Google works and the latest developments of the number one search engine on the web.
The first thing to realize is the dominance of Google in the search engine landscape. In Belgium, 95% of keyword searches are done on Google(1). The main alternative chosen by users is Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, used by about 3% of Internet users. Yahoo! comes in third place on the podium. In other words, the engine that weighs heavily on access to information is Google. This is why it is at the center of the visibility strategy of companies. And it is for this very reason that we will make it the core of the following analysis.
The second thing to know is that people are impatient and not many do extensive research. The numbers speak for themselves: the first 4 results proposed (often from thousands of potential results) generate 81% click-through rates(2). In other words, less than one in five users explore the5th result. Only a few percent will be interested in the second page of results.
What can we conclude from this? The selection of information that will be proposed to users, as a result of Google’s algorithm, will have a heavy influence on the shaping of opinions. Information relegated to the second page will only reach a very limited audience.
« What’s the best place to hide a corpse? The second page of Google’s results », says Olivier Andrieu, the most famous French SEO expert by far.
Based on this observation, we wanted to observe what information enters the « skylight » of the American search engine when we are interested in the management of the COVID-19 health crisis. Without pretending to carry out an exhaustive study of scientific value, we would like to make a few probes, which will allow us to shed light on certain realities of the search engine.
As the screenshot above shows, on some key queries, in the first part of the screen (the one we know will monopolize a very large part of the attention), the search engine does not even direct to external result pages. It delivers the information directly!
When one considers how critical some scientists and statisticians remain about the origin, homogeneity, consistency and relevance of the source data, whether for deaths attributed to COVID or for the famous COVID « negative cases » based on variably calibrated and organized PCR tests, this shortcut to a single source of data can be considered a rather bold move. It suggests that there is only one easy-to-obtain numerical truth, whereas the reality is infinitely more complex.
The artificial intelligence of the Google search engine continues to progress. The latest version of its algorithm has been named « MUM ». Thanks to a powerful work on synonymy in many languages of the world, it makes it possible to channel different requests towards the same page of results. This further increases the rate of exposure to the same response or message staged by the engine. Recently, Google communicated that it was testing its MUM algorithm on vaccine-related issues(3).
Google is almost becoming a medium in its own right, as evidenced by the staggering increase in zero click results pages(4). In 65% of the cases, users are satisfied with the information proposed by Google, without digging further!
Google is not neutral on the issue of vaccination. On April 15, the California-based firm announced its willingness to » participate in global vaccination efforts « (5). This support included the purchase of 200,000 doses of vaccine, as well as advertising subsidies. In this context, it seems legitimate to question the neutrality of the search engine algorithms, which are not public.
How far will Google be able to go under pressure from governments? The trend is clear: over the past 10 years, requests for user information from governments have steadily increased(6).
Last April, Google decided to make public the geolocation data it has. This data is supposed to « provide valuable information on the movements of populations, and especially, on the frequentation of different categories of places », says the giant(7). A total of 131 countries are involved.
Until now, this data is anonymous. That is to say, we can see the movements of the population, without knowing that it is Mr. Dupont or Mrs. Tartempion who went to their country house. But from there to individual tracing, it’s only a step. Take as a warning the statement by the Sécurité du Québec (SQ) that it is preparing to use cell phones to geolocate citizens who refuse to go into isolation during the coronavirus pandemic(8).
But Google’s influence doesn’t stop there. When you perform a search, the engine suggests queries that usually match the popular ones. Normally, the search engine tries to help you by speeding up access to the most frequent searches. This feature is called « Google Suggest ».
In this case, we were nevertheless very surprised, for example, not to see the association between ivermectin and COVID, which is very topical.
In other places, Google highlights « Frequently Asked Questions » around the topic being searched. This sounds good in form. However, the answers may surprise the slightly critical mind.
For example, to the question « Are COVID-19 vaccines safe? », Google answers in 8 lines, which are based on the official response of the European Medicines Agency. There is a lot of talk and not the slightest indication that, very exceptionally and conditionally, these vaccines will be put on the market before the end of phase 3 clinical trials. No link to an analysis of the side effects or the benefit/risk ratio.
As for the efficacy of vaccines, beyond the question of their safety, how is it apprehended by the world’s main information provider?
In our case, it is the LCI.fr website that comes first, just below the news carousel(10).
On analysis, we observe that the article that is so well positioned refers to « a British study », for which it does not even provide precise references.
This article is 582 words long. This seems quite frugal to obtain the « pole position » on a complex topic. How does Google get into this situation? We cannot give a precise answer, but one thing is certain: the relevance and consistency of the first results proposed by Google are highly questionable. However, as we have seen above, these first results will condition the major part of the impression made to the Internet users.
« Researcher maybe, doctor, I don’t know », the actor Alain Delon harshly criticizes Didier Raoult. It’s amazing to see the precious pixel space of a very current research invaded by comments that border on defamation.
Didier Raoult’s reputation on the first page of the Bing engine is akin to a smear campaign. In the news carousel, Raoult is even associated with Bernard Tapie: » Two pyromaniacs in the fire of France « , one can read.
No link is proposed to the main person concerned, who nevertheless feeds a very consistent video channel at the IHU Marseille. Bing’s results page is a one-sided trial, which does not give the accused a voice.
Our purpose is not to take a position, but to be aware of an objective fact: even a nominative request concerning one of the main actors of the debate on COVID-19 generates value judgments, but practically no link to the persons concerned, which would allow one to form one’s own opinion. The judgment on the person takes precedence over the original sources.
The result is felt in the public opinion: the simple mention of Didier Raoult is enough to provoke burning reactions, coming from people who, sometimes, have never heard him speak.
Another important point, and a precaution to add to my analysis: it is important to know that, on Google, the results can vary from one computer to another, depending on different parameters, such as the geographical location or the search history of a user. The search engine tends to offer you localized information, when possible, and to favor the type of information that you seem to enjoy or consult regularly. This is called « personalization of search results ».
The geographic filter is not the least of these. For example, if I search for « Dipali Ojha India », on Google France, I come across an unattractive page, which seems to list profiles of people corresponding to the name searched. But no news has come up.
What should we keep in mind as a point of vigilance? Localization of information, especially on Google France, can make you completely miss crucial information, when it is not processed by the European media. While the use of alternative search engines to Google and Bing may surprise you, almost as much as a fog lifting to reveal a brand new information landscape.
In this case, the complaint of the Indian Bar Association filed against Dr. B. B. was not filed. Soumya Swaminathan, Scientific Director of the WHO, for misinformation about ivermectin, is the object, to this day, of a radio silence within the French media, except for France Soir which relays the information(12).
The Deputy Secretary of Health has recognized the effectiveness of ivermectin as a treatment for COVID and medical experts from both the public and private sectors have also confirmed this. The Indian High Court ruled in favor of this treatment. This is the recognition of ivermectin in a country that has already generalized its use. But this recognition is currently the subject of a great silence in the European media arena. Silence echoed by Google’s geographic filter.
Come on, we left you the best part for the end. Never before seen in the 20-year career of the search engine: the newspaper Le Monde, almost without competition on a query concerning deaths linked to vaccines. Sure, the search phrase « in the world » echoes the newspaper brand, but in many other contexts, Google handles polysemy perfectly.
In conclusion, although we do not claim to have performed an exhaustive analysis here, we have observed that :
- The very first results of Google drastically impact the opinion.
- These very first results often lack scientific consistency.
- Microsoft’s Bing engine offers an arena for slander.
- More and more often, Google puts the information on stage, without the need to consult external sources.
- Crucial information is completely missing from the local engine.
- Google’s suggestions filter out important information.
- Google has explicitly and actively taken a stand in favor of vaccines.
- Google relays the official information in priority.
- Your personal data, including location data, may be transmitted to the States.
- Google’s algorithms are not made public, but they condition the reality of access to information.
- The use of search engines is 95% concentrated on Google.
- Alternative search engines (DuckDuckGo or Ecosia, for example) are, in some cases, transforming the information landscape.