The first rule of Google Club is "don't be evil."
Yesterday, it appeared that the second rule of Google Club was "don't be evil, but if caught being evil, deny."
In the aftermath of a recent viral video which alleged that Google is jiggering its autocomplete search results in favor of Hillary Clinton, pundits and tech experts predicted that the company would simply stay silent waiting for the controversy to fizzle, or at best issue a curt, brief statement, which it did initially when it said that "Google Autocomplete does not favor any candidate or cause,” a rep wrote. "Claims to the contrary simply misunderstand how Autocomplete works."
However, it did not end there and Instead late on Friday, Google felt compelled to write a blog post detailing how its autocomplete function works in search, something it has never done before. It didn’t say so explicitly, but the post is supposed to be a direct rebuttal to the abovementioned claims that the function buries more damning search results for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, thereby aiding her electoral odds.
Google denied it initially, but felt it necessary to add more after the claims drew considerable attention online and in political quarters. Even Donald Trump was alarmed, saying in a statement to Recode that “if this is true, it is a disgrace that Google would do that. Very, very dishonest. They should let it float and allow people to see how crooked she really is.”
Eager to put this behind it, Google's Tamar Yehoshua, the Google VP who runs that search feature, had this to say:
The autocomplete algorithm is designed to avoid completing a search for a person’s name with terms that are offensive or disparaging. We made this change a while ago following feedback that Autocomplete too often predicted offensive, hurtful or inappropriate queries about people.
The post concludes with a note, addressed to us web searchers, “that your trust is what keeps you using Google.”
Google Search Autocomplete
Over the last week we've received questions about our autocomplete feature. I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify a few things.
The autocomplete algorithm is designed to avoid completing a search for a person’s name with terms that are offensive or disparaging. We made this change a while ago following feedback that Autocomplete too often predicted offensive, hurtful or inappropriate queries about people. This filter operates according to the same rules no matter who the person is, as you can see in some examples here.
Autocomplete isn’t an exact science, and the output of the prediction algorithms changes frequently. Predictions are produced based on a number of factors including the popularity and freshness of search terms. Given that search activity varies, the terms that appears in Autocomplete for you may change over time. If you come across an Autocomplete prediction you consider offensive, please let us know. It’s also important to keep in mind that Autocomplete predictions aren’t search results and don’t limit what you can search for.
It’s a shortcut for those who are interested. You can still perform whatever search you want to, and of course, regardless of what you search for, we always strive to deliver the most relevant results from across the web.
We welcome feedback - and scrutiny - as it helps us provide you the best services. We recognize that your trust is what keeps you using Google, so we take our responsibility seriously. From the beginning, our approach has been to provide the most relevant answers, and we’ll continue doing just that.
Why the sudden moment of transparency into Google's architecture? As ReCode notes, "Google is particularly concerned about these sorts of claims, in no small part because the contested (frankly bizarre) 2016 electoral politics have given the notion that Silicon Valley shows its political stripes through its products serious legs. Fiction doesn’t help. The situation Google faces is nearly identical to a central plot line in the fourth season of Netflix’s “House of Cards.”
Of course, Google can't win and the question now will be why is the company watering down its algorithm to avoid "offensive and disparaging" terms, even if those are the most popular ones associated with any given query, and if it is filtering its queries, just who is it that decides what at Google is "politically correct."
But the most notable outcome is that when pressed in a politically charged climate, even the most secretive companies have to reveal components of their secret sauce, which in a world where true transparency is scarce, is a much needed outcome.
And now, if only someone could leak the transcripts of the Bilderberg meeting taking place in Dresden - a far more important event for the future of the world than Google autocomplete. Considering Google CEO Eric Schmidt is among those present, perhaps Google's next blog post can be about what really takes place behind those particular closed doors.