Earlier this week, Google's CEO Sundar Pichai faced a House Judiciary Committee in the United States Congress to answer questions about recent data breaches and other important security matters. So, naturally, the discussion turned to extremely serious and important matters. Like why searches on Google for the word "idiot" turn up images of President Donald Trump.
The biggest miracle of all this is that Pichai didn't burst out laughing. And while the focus by some congress-people was clearly on self interest - many were more worried about why search results cast them in a bad light - the question of why some words are associated with specific people is interesting. Picahi provided some insight into how Google prioritises search results.
When asked about whether Google was manipulating search results, a Democratic congresswoman got this answer from Pichai.
Any time you type in a keyword, as Google we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of [websites’] pages in our index. And we take the keyword and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals — things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it. And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query. And then we evaluate them with external raters, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines. And that’s how we make sure the process is working.
There are plenty of good reasons that the word "idiot" is linked with President Trump.
For example, the Green Day song "American Idiot" was often played in the UK when the president visited earlier this year. And there's the proactive of Google bombing. Even the question asked by the Congresswoman, and the widespread reporting of it, will increase the connection between "idiot" and "Donald Trump" (see what I did there?). And there was also a Reddit campaign asking users to upvote a post containing a photo of Trump and the word "idiot".
Pichai also noted that Google facilitated over 3 trillion searches last year and that they "don't manually intervene on any given search result".
President Trump has often complained that search results are rigged against him.
Google search results for “Trump News” shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2018
Assuming Pichai was completely honest and transparent in his answers, it's those "200 signals" that determine what we see in a given set of search results. We know that secure websites and those that are adaptive to mobile are prioritised over other search results. And clearly the presence of specific words and their proximity to other words make a difference to the ranking of a page.