In an election arguably plagued by paranoia – including whether a President Donald Trump will usher in the apocalypse and whether Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is about to drop dead – there seems to be a lot of paranoia about voter manipulation.
This includes multiple allegations of search engine bias in which Google, in particular, has been accused of tampering with results because of its political agenda – claims that Google and search experts alike have vehemently denied.
At the same time, this is, after all, American politics, so we’re seeing some very real link manipulation tactics in action. But, in the end, spammy links are no match for good content – let that be a lesson to you, Kellyanne Conway and John Podesta – and it’s actually voters themselves who are perhaps most responsible for influencing what they see – and who are potentially the most influential within their own circles.
Here’s a closer look at how this is playing out as we careen towards November 8.
Is Google pro-Clinton?
In June, news site SourceFed released a video accusing Google of “actively altering search recommendations” in favor of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton based on suggested results for searches for “Hillary Clinton cri-” and “Hillary Clinton ind-.”
In response, Google said its Autocomplete algorithm is “designed to avoid completing a search for a person’s name with terms that are offensive or disparaging.”
What’s more, Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team who is now working with the Defense Digital Service at the Pentagon, took to Twitter to debunk the claim, noting, in part, negative searches about Clinton were more often for “hillary X,” not “hillary clinton X.”
And in a post on Medium, Rhea Drysdale, CEO of digital marketing and SEO firm Outspoken Media, poked holes in SourceFed’s logic by showcasing similar results for searches for “Donald Trump ra-” and “Donald Trump la-.”
Drysdale was not available for additional comment, but, in her post, she wrote, “The story isn’t that Google favors Hillary Clinton, it’s that Google is a complex algorithm that presents information in many ways and, at this point, that includes artificial intelligence.”
Indeed, she noted Google’s algorithm is intelligent enough to know that searches for “email” and “Hillary Clinton” are synonymous with “indictment” and “criminal charges.”
“I’m not going to pretend that I understand everything about Google, because that’s impossible for anyone but Google’s engineers,” Drysdale wrote. “However, I can say with certainty that Google does NOT favor Hillary Clinton…the story that matters is HOW Google Autocomplete works, not that it favors anyone.”
But the conspiracy theories don’t end there…
Research psychologist Robert Epstein published a report in September claiming Google bias toward Clinton could shift as many as 3 million votes.
This prompted a response from Michael King, managing director of performance marketing agency iPullRank, in which he said, “The idea that they are actively attempting to change the results of an election, in my professional opinion, is bullshit.”
That’s in part because Epstein compares results from Google, Bing and Yahoo “as though all search engines should return the same thing,” which ignores how search engine audiences are stratified, King said.
What’s more, the demographics of the users of these search engines are different, he added.
King, too, was not available to elaborate. However, his post also noted suggested results for the term “Hillary Clinton,” are in part dictated by the personalization Google uses to prepare rankings, which includes a user’s search history.
And, King wrote, the Autocomplete results for a search for Clinton “are the result of what users are actually looking for more widely across the United States.”
‘Search is mimicking reality’
But that’s not to say there’s no manipulation in the 2016 election – there’s simply a different culprit.
In fact, Dixon Jones, marketing director at marketing search engine and SEO backlink checker Majestic, said he does not believe Google is in any way manipulating results, but noted search engine bias is possible – although the examples given so far in this election are cases of the tail wagging the dog because search is mimicking reality.
“What the original stories [of search engine bias] are picking up on…is search terms, so search terms that are being searched more often than before. [Clinton] in certain contexts maybe [doesn’t] want to be associated with [the search terms that] are being suggested, so it’s not necessarily that the algorithm is manipulated, but it probably is to say the US population [is] a bit manipulated one way or the other,” Jones said. “That part of the algorithm is human-driven and then the [interesting] bit is what drives the humans? The underlying conversation that may have advertently or inadvertently [been] skewed by search algorithms, including links.”
‘It’s not a conspiracy - it’s just the way it is’
According to Jones, debate remains within the industry over whether it’s possible to manipulate search engines by flooding a site with good or bad links – and attempting to make a candidate rank higher or lower as a result.
“Google has just rolled out Penguin 4.0, so the industry is waiting to see how effective this new algorithm is,” he added.
But that hasn’t stopped Clinton and Trump supporters from trying.
“Humans are affecting this by making assumptions about the algorithm that Google doesn’t make public and then taking it upon themselves to try to act like God with the American population,” he said.
In fact, Jones said both candidates have a similar volume of links, as well as irregularities and it’s anybody’s guess who is behind them.
Per Majestic, crappy pages linking to Trump include:
“Here you can see someone supporting Trump is buying links,” Jones said.
But, Majestic noted, Clinton has her own crappy pages, including:
“In other words, these are three totally separate web domains producing exactly the same article. That’s just as bad as buying links, really,” Jones said. “It is clearly manipulated and not genuine editorial. Vaguely more sophisticated technically, but that’s about it.”
But even though both sides are manipulating links, the media and the American public, Jones said this is frankly what they’re supposed to do because they’re trying to sway voters.
“I think that the conspiracy theorists are not entirely wrong – but it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just the way it is,” Jones said.
In other words, it’s people who are manipulated more than algorithms. And content and connections are influencing what people seek out, which further influences results.
“I really think that is what the game is here,” Jones said. “People influence search engines…sometimes by links, sometimes by other means. But the intent of the person and the ability of that person to influence a subject is, I believe, important.”
Therefore, Clinton and Trump campaign staffers who want to influence search engines – and voters – are best served with some good old-fashioned content marketing and seeking out high-profile links, or links from reputable sites, as well as by making their candidate the focal point of compelling content people want to share.
“Spammy sites don’t have influence because the connection to authority is much further removed. The reason that Fox News or CNN home pages have so much authority is because so many other organizations and…others are linking to those sites in first place,” Jones said.
Breaking: Voters manipulate themselves
At the same time, news organizations, which have a long history of proudly endorsing candidates and theoretically influencing voters, have increasingly less sway than social media.
“The thing is we used to get up in morning and watch Fox News or MSNBC or CNN and now we get up and watch our Twitter or Facebook News feed and those platforms are not intentionally trying to control conversations,” Jones said. “It’s individuals on the platform and who we choose to connect to. As soon as [I’ve] connected to and choose to hear [from friends], I’ve changed the things I hear…and I can’t be bothered to go and sign up to listen to everything that CNN has to say because they just come out with so much stuff that isn’t relevant to me.”
Further, Jones said voters tend to only seek out official news sources when they want an authority to back up what they think they might have heard.
“If what you see comes from a friend, you engage with the concept. If it comes from a stranger, then you are less likely to accept the concept,” Jones said. “The thing about Twitter and Facebook streams is that they are self-selecting. You choose your own friends. In doing so, you manipulated your own news coverage. It is only when you realize that – and many never will – that you step out of your personal friends and look at the more serious publications on the matters of the day.”