Available Evidence Does Not Support the Claim That Google Silently Alters Search Queries platformer.news

Megan Gray, formerly an FTC attorney and DuckDuckGo general counsel, writing in an op-ed for Wired:

Google likely alters queries billions of times a day in trillions of different variations. Here’s how it works. Say you search for “children’s clothing.” Google converts it, 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. It’s not possible for you to opt out of the substitution. If you don’t get the results you want, and you try to refine your query, you are wasting your time. This is a twisted shopping mall you can’t escape.

This is a stunning claim — and one for which Gray does not cite any evidence, beyond saying the “projector screen [in the courtroom] showed an internal Google slide about changes to its search algorithm”:

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.

This article was understandably quoted and linked to across the web as its allegations seem to support complaints about a decline in quality of so-called “organic” search results while bolstering rumours that these results are influenced by ad spend.

There are so far no exhibits posted by the U.S. Department of Justice which make this claim. The best match seems to be UPX0204, an internal presentation called “Ranking for Research” (PDF). The version made publicly available is “redacted […] and abridged”, which suggests parts of a longer presentation were shown in court but were deemed too sensitive to show online. Hey, at least Judge Mehta is relaxing the trial’s secrecy a little bit. In any case, the last available page of that exhibit has, as part of a flowchart showing how search works, a “query rewriter”, but there is no suggestion anywhere that it is doing anything more than “interpret[ing the] query”. If I search for “children’s clothing”, I would want to see results from websites selling “kids’ clothing” and “child-sized t-shirts”, for example — “semantic matching” of the type suggested by the quote above.

The government also entered a briefing paper (PDF) prepared for the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority in February 2020 which, on page 18, notes that Google’s ad ranking system “optimize[s] an advertiser’s ability to show its ads in related auctions for similar queries”, citing a Google help article.

My understanding is that at least one other reporter covering this trial is struggling to reproduce Gray’s story, in part because none of the exhibits posted so far seem to support these claims. In addition, Google issued a specific denial to Zoë Schiffer of Platformer:

“Google does not delete queries and replace them with ones that monetize better as the opinion piece suggests, and the organic results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems,” the company told us.

Unless evidence materializes to indicate otherwise, it is hard to believe the accuracy of Gray’s reporting in this circumstance.