Wired Article Claims Google Alters Search Queries to Show More Ads


A Wired article says Google may be altering billions of queries a day to generate results that will get users to click on more ads.


Highlights

  • Wired published an opinion piece that accused Google of manipulating search queries to show more ads to users.
  • Google Search Liaison responded to the piece by saying search results are not affected by Google’s ads systems.
  • Google Ads Product Liaison responded with a similar statement.

Wired published an opinion piece by Megan Gray, founder of GrayMatters Law & Policy, on October 2, 2023, that insinuated Google deletes search queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better with ads. Gray came to this conclusion after attending the ongoing US antitrust case against Google.

Screenshot of Wired article by Megan Gray

“During one employee’s testimony, a key exhibit momentarily flashed on a projector,” said Gray. “This onscreen Google slide had to do with a ‘semantic matching’ overhaul to its SERP algorithm. When you enter a query, you might expect a search engine to incorporate synonyms into the algorithm as well as text phrase pairings in natural language processing. But this overhaul went further, actually altering queries to generate more commercial results.”

Gray said Google is likely altering billions of queries each day in trillions of different variations and provided an example of how it may work:

You search for “children’s clothing” on Google. Google’s system converts the query, without your knowledge, to a search for “NIKOLAI-brand kidswear”, making a behind-the-scenes substitution of your actual query with a different query that just happens to generate more money for the company, and will generate results you weren’t searching for at all.

Gray said Google makes these types of query substitutions to generate more shopping-oriented search results. This automatically generates more paid Google Ads by stores like TJ Maxx, which pay every time you click on them.

“It’s a guaranteed way to line Google’s pockets,” said Gray. “It’s also a guaranteed way to harm everyone except Google. This system reduces search engine quality for users and drives up advertiser expenses. Google can get away with it because these manipulations are imperceptible to the user and advertiser, and the company has effectively captured more than 90 percent market share.”

A few days later, on October 4, 2023, Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search, posted a response on X to the Wired article:

“An opinion piece recently appeared stating that Google ‘just flat out deletes queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better.’ We don’t. The piece contains serious inaccuracies about how Google Search works. The organic (IE: non-sponsored) results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems.

“In particular, the piece seems to misunderstand how keyword matching is related to showing relevant ads on Google Search.

“Ad keyword matching is a long-standing and well-known process that is designed to connect people to relevant ads. Learn more here.

“A separate process, which has nothing to do with ads, is used to match organic results to a query, as explained here.

“It’s no secret that Google Search looks beyond the specific words in a query to better understand their meaning, in order to show relevant organic results. This is a helpful process that we’ve written about many times:

“This ensures that Google Search can better show people organic results and connect them to helpful resources. If you make a spelling mistake, or search for a term that’s not on a page but where the page has a close synonym, or if you aren’t even sure exactly how to search for something, our meaning matching systems help.”

Ginny Marvin, Google’s Ads Product Liason, quoted Sullivan’s post on X, saying: “In Google Ads, advertisers use keyword match types to broaden or narrow the searches their ads may be eligible to show on. Our ads systems do not affect organic results in Search.”

With the Google antitrust case still underway, hopefully, more details about the accusation made by Gray will unfold. To get daily updates about the case, visit the Verge which is posting daily updates here: US v. Google Antitrust Trial.

Summary

Wired published an opinion piece by Megan Gray, founder of GrayMatters Law & Policy, that insinuated Google deletes search queries and replaces them with ones that monetize better with ads. Google Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan and Ad Products Liaison, Ginny Marvin, responded to Gray’s accusation by saying the results displayed in Google Search are not affected by Google’s ads systems.



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