Search and dispute.

Photographer: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

Gaming Google for Profit and Ideology

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He blogs at the Big Picture and is the author of “Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”
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Since today is the 11th anniversary of first-day trading in Google shares after its initial public offering, I wanted to bring to your attention a recent bit of gamesmanship that has been taking place with its search function.

Google rose to its position of authority and influence because it invented a better way to navigate the World Wide Web. Search was more or less OK in the late 1990s, but two Stanford students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, figured out how to use the link structure of the Web to create page rank. They created an algorithm that ranked any site by its authority, which was a function of how many other authoritative sites linked or pointed to it. Sure, it's a bit circular, but it works extremely well -- better than the other search engines of 10 or 15 years ago, most of which have since been forgotten.

That was only the first part of their genius; figuring out how to make money on those searches was what separated Google’s business model from all the rest. The key was AdWords, which displays advertising text based partly on key words -- a low-cost, high-margin business driven by Google’s brilliant algorithms.

Therein lies the system's Achilles heel.

Algorithms follow specific patterns, and it's only a matter of time before someone figures these out and learns how to game them. With Google, the big offenders have been spammers, who try all sorts of tricks to generate search results. Publishers and other websites often play similar games in an effort to capture higher page rank in the Google machinery. The upside is more traffic, and consequently more money, for those who succeed. The downside is that the sorts of tricks often employed by gamesters may violate Google’s terms of service -- provided they get caught.

I was thinking about this recently while doing a Google search on a topic I have been writing about, the changing minimum wage. Recall how infuriating it was that profitable, publicly traded companies had been taking advantage of the U.S. social safety net, leaving it to taxpayers to subsidize their operations. McDonald's was probably the biggest offender, with its notorious McResource site and help line, which told employees how to take advantage of government programs such as food stamps. It was an open admission that the company didn’t pay enough for employees to live on. The company has since closed the page

While doing my research, I decided to verify some information on Seattle's decision last year to raise its minimum wage.

Normally, when you do a Google search, for simple information, you get a quick “saved you a click” answer at the top of the search. A search for “world population” shows 7 billion; "Miles Davis birthday" returns May 26, 1926; the "capital of Lithuania" is Vilnius. These shortcuts are useful time savers -- assuming they are correct.

That assumption, though, might be a mistake. Punch in “Seattle minimum wage” and the tech giant’s normally wonderful algorithms provide the following:

Now, if you were unaware that Seattle’s minimum wage was actually $11, you might leave without knowing that you hadn't found the correct answer to what you were looking for.

The search was fooled by what looked like an authoritative factual article, but was in fact a commentary filled with misleading information. The conservative site Western Journalism has incorrectly written about this in March, and again in July and numerous times since. “In a few weeks, Seattle’s new, highest in the country, $15 per hour minimum wage will go into effect,” the article says in the opening sentence. The article and others like it go on to cite all the "fallout" the city's businesses are experiencing. This is patently false, as the minimum wage that went into effect on April 1 in Seattle is $11. The $15 rate doesn't start until Jan. 1, 2017, and may be delayed for some companies until 2021 based on their size.

Western Journalism describes itself as “a news website and blogging platform built for conservative, libertarian, free market and pro-family writers and broadcasters.” Fox News, PJ Media, Breitbart, TownHall and others dominate the Google minimum wage search results, which also includes a post by the Seattle’s mayor’s office and the Washington Post. Indeed, most of the sources cited on the first page of search results include other conservative outlets that repeat the same false statements about Seattle's minimum wage.

Google’s vaunted algorithm has been gamed this time not by spammers, but by people of similar ideologies who seem to care little for facts.

As the 2016 election season approaches, I expect to see more of this sort of gamesmanship. Gaming systems seems to be sport in the U.S., whether it is for taxpayers' money or ideological promotion. That is unfortunate, for in a democracy the truth matters.

We have all learned to take Wikipedia’s factual assertions with a grain of salt. It seems the same may be true of Google's search results as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Barry L Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net