Google Slashes Search Traf­fic for More Al­ter­na­tive News Sites

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The news site search traf­fic cuts Google has been mak­ing are no longer just about click­bait and fake news. The com­pany is now go­ing after more of what we re­ally need to help us un­der­stand the world.

This is to a large ex­tent our own fault, for giv­ing up de­vel­op­ing our own abil­ity to search the web prop­erly. Yes, Google has tremen­dous al­go­rithms to help us, and none of us could have done all that on our own. Yet we have al­lowed a third party to be­come our search cu­ra­tor. That has changed the game.

Google has taken all the press and on­line com­plaints about news gen­er­ated just for the sake of get­ting eye­balls se­ri­ously. This used to be what is com­monly known as “click­bait” – ar­ti­cles put on­line just to get po­ten­tial read­ers to click. With ti­tles like “You won’t be­lieve what her mom found in her room” or “The ev­i­dence proved aliens had been there,” many of these ar­ti­cles were the In­ter­net equiv­a­lent of tabloid news­pa­pers. En­tire on­line com­pa­nies were built with the idea of get­ting a per­son to click to go to their sites first, then hit­ting them with a bar­rage of ad­ver­tise­ments dis­guised as web­sites. Get­ting their clicks meant get­ting ad­ver­tiser rev­enue, and that was all that mat­tered. Google has also been work­ing on mak­ing sure searches stay away from what are more clearly junk sites. It is far less com­mon to stum­ble ac­ci­den­tally upon pornog­ra­phy and ill-con­ceived med­i­cal the­ory web­sites than in the past. They just don’t come up in a search the way they used to. That’s a good thing, es­pe­cially since those who dish up such junk are get­ting even more clever at de­liv­er­ing that sort of thing.

Google’s role as a pro­tec­tor and an al­most parental guid­ance source has be­gun to reach its lim­its now, how­ever. The com­pany has be­gun go­ing after what is – thanks to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s overuse of the phrase – “fake news.” This time – in its own way – Google has be­come more than just a pro­tec­tor against porn and sites clearly writ­ten with no re­search. It has be­come the ar­biter of what it con­sid­ers ap­pro­pri­ate in­for­ma­tion to present in a search. That of­ten cuts off the fringes of in­for­ma­tion knowl­edge that are of­ten where the best new ideas be­gin to emerge.

As a case in point, one on­line re­source, World So­cial­ist Web Site (, noted that its abil­ity to show up in search traf­fic, which ap­pears when one is not look­ing specif­i­cally for a par­tic­u­lar site but in­stead for con­tent de­scrip­tion, dropped by 45% be­tween April and Au­gust

2017. Be­cause Google has fur­ther tuned its search al­go­rithms since then, as of just a few weeks ago, the site’s traf­fic dropped by 74% from April’s re­sults.

Spe­cific ar­ti­cles from WSWS have suf­fered even worse. In April, the to­tal num­ber of times its ar­ti­cle re­fer­rals showed up was 450,000. By mid-septem­ber, the num­ber was down to 68,000, a de­crease of 85%.

WSWS’S page rank also dropped, ac­cord­ing to another mea­sure of web­site re­sults, Alexa, a rank­ing soft­ware pack­age owned by Ama­zon. In the same April-septem­ber pe­riod, WSWS dropped from num­ber 31,000 to num­ber 41,000.

In fair­ness, the name of the site, World So­cial­ist Web Site, may dis­cour­age some read­ers. It openly de­scribes it­self, on the ver­sion sam­pled on Septem­ber 25, in this way:

“The World So­cial­ist Web Site is pub­lished by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Fourth In­ter­na­tional, the lead­er­ship of the world so­cial­ist move­ment, the Fourth In­ter­na­tional founded by Leon Trot­sky in 1938.”

It is, openly, about look­ing at the world from a Marx­ist per­spec­tive. Read the next lines of its de­scrip­tion and think about them with­out re­al­iz­ing the per­spec­tive of the anal­y­sis:

“The WSWS aims to meet the need, felt widely to­day, for an in­tel­li­gent ap­praisal of the prob­lems of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety. It ad­dresses it­self to the masses of peo­ple who are dis­sat­is­fied with the present state of so­cial life, as well as its cyn­i­cal and re­ac­tionary treat­ment by the es­tab­lish­ment me­dia.”

Such phras­ing could be aptly as­signed to some of the most her­alded jour­nal­is­tic web­sites on the planet. Even Fox News, which sup­ports more con­ser­va­tive analy­ses, speaks of the “main­stream me­dia” as those it at­tempts to dif­fer from.

Yet, take a look at the WSWS as of Septem­ber 25, con­sid­er­ing the head­lines listed be­low, taken from the site’s “front page”:

U “As Trump threat­ens North Korea, most Amer­i­cans op­pose war” U “In de­fi­ance of Trump threats, US ath­letes protest po­lice re­pres­sion” U “Iraqi Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum stokes Mideast war ten­sions” U “Puerto Rico con­fronts the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by hur­ri­canes and Wall Street”

Do these sound so dis­torted or twisted that a search al­go­rithm should de­lib­er­ately avoid them? Click­ing to read fur­ther shows a gen­uinely dif­fer­ent look at some things. In many cases, though, the per­spec­tive is just that – a dif­fer­ent way of con­sid­er­ing the world. It is not about cre­at­ing fake news or at­tempt­ing to sway pub­lic opin­ion – at least not in any dif­fer­ent way than The New York Times or even the well-known con­ser­va­tive site Na­tional Re­view (na­tion­al­re­ does.

It is not just WSWS that has been get­ting this treat­ment from Google, how­ever. Con­sider the fol­low­ing:

• Al­ter­net (al­ter­, among the top 3,000 sites in the United States, dropped in to­tal traf­fic by 71% be­tween April and Septem­ber.

• Democ­racy Now! (democ­ra­ falls in the top 5,000 sites. Its search traf­fic dropped by 50% be­tween April and Septem­ber.

• Com­mon Dreams (com­mon­ is ranked in the top 8,000 sites. Its traf­fic is down by 50% since April.

• Global Re­search (glob­al­re­, also known as the Cen­tre for Re­search on Glob­al­iza­tion, shows up as one of the top 14,000 sites and yet saw traf­fic drop by 62% from April to Septem­ber.

• Truthout (, ranked in the top 12,000 sites in the United States, had its search traf­fic drop by 49% in the same pe­riod.

All these sites did not ac­tively change the na­ture of their con­tent since April. So what hap­pened to cause these drops in traf­fic? It was ex­actly what has been de­scribed here – an al­go­rithm change on Google’s part.

A post that de­scribes for the pub­lic what is go­ing on is en­ti­tled “Our lat­est qual­ity im­prove­ments for Search,” writ­ten by Ben Gomes, VP of Engi­neer­ing for Google. It was pub­lished on April 25, 2017.

It starts out by ex­plain­ing a bit about how “con­tent farms” work, which used to be a prob­lem with Google. These cov­ered things where there was “hid­den text [such as text printed in the same color of the back­ground so it would blend in while still be­ing picked up in a search] and other de­cep­tive prac­tices.” So far so good.

Google has now taken that far fur­ther. It has added what Gomes refers to as “al­go­rith­mic up­dates to sur­face more au­thor­i­ta­tive con­tent.” It has be­gun low­er­ing the rank­ing of what is “of­fen­sive or clearly mis­lead­ing” con­tent, which is not what peo­ple are look­ing for.

Google is also mak­ing more use of its eval­u­a­tors – “real peo­ple who as­sess the qual­ity of Google’s search re­sults” – and us­ing their as­sess­ments for more hard-

wired ad­just­ments to its search al­go­rithms. The idea, as listed in Google’s own “Search Qual­ity Eval­u­a­tor Guide­lines,” is de­scribed by Gomes as in­tend­ing “to ap­pro­pri­ately flag low qual­ity web­pages … which can in­clude mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion, un­ex­pected of­fen­sive re­sults, hoaxes and un­sup­ported con­spir­acy the­o­ries.”

Google’s tight­en­ing of what we as read­ers of the so­called “free In­ter­net” get to see in a search is get­ting strong sup­port from many around the world. Pres­i­dent Trump; U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Lt. Gen. H. R. Mcmaster in the White House; Adam Schiff, the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat; and Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May all say there is a need for stricter con­trol of the In­ter­net.

In her lat­est “tell-all” book, What Hap­pened, Hil­lary Clin­ton blames part of her de­feat to gen­uine “fake news.” That news is even now be­ing ad­dressed by Face­book in a just-re­leased list of Rus­sian-con­trolled sup­pli­ers of in­for­ma­tion spread across Face­book pages in the fall of 2016, just be­fore the elec­tion.

Face­book has also be­gun ad­just­ing its own al­go­rithms and deal­ing with bot net­works de­signed to stuff its pages with con­tent that gains eye­balls both for those net­works and for Face­book. It is un­clear whether those steps will make any dif­fer­ence, but they are at­tempt­ing the task, Face­book says.

The prob­lem with both Google and Face­book lies in two things.

The first is that even if they find a way to re­duce gen­uine noise in the news by us­ing al­go­rithms, or even more ad­vanced pro­to­cols us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, these are still rule-based al­go­rithms that peo­ple have de­signed. They rely on de­ci­sion mak­ing that, by its na­ture, has bias built in. Even the best of judges will end up in­ad­ver­tently blocking some things that are im­por­tant to see, even if they are dis­torted slightly or less well-re­searched. The worst of those judges will block some of the best of the al­ter­na­tive sites. The sec­ond is that with the massive power of Google and Face­book in de­cid­ing what all of us get to see, we have sur­ren­dered our abil­ity to search and make de­ci­sions for our­selves to some­one else.

As a sim­ple ex­am­ple, with peo­ple now hav­ing so many “friends” on Face­book, Face­book has had to sam­ple even the feeds of those one has selected as friends when pre­sent­ing an on­line feed for its cus­tomers. Read­ers no longer get a chance to sort all that their friends say, all by them­selves, all in the in­ter­est of mak­ing sure ev­ery­body gets a chance for their feed to come across a Face­book user’s feed.

Face­book – and now Google, with its own styl­ized cu­rated news feeds within Google Now and other vari­ants of those ser­vices – takes other types of con­tents and sam­ples them for us, se­lect­ing what their al­go­rithms feel is not only the best type of in­for­ma­tion for each of us but also of the best qual­ity, to bor­row the term used by Ben Gomes and folks within Face­book.

We are be­ing spoon-fed a pro­tected vi­sion of the world from the stand­point of only a few giants that con­trol the In­ter­net. Even worse, those who grew up with this as the op­ti­mal way to re­search overly trust those giants to do the right thing, rarely ac­tively search­ing for al­ter­na­tive vi­sions of what might be hap­pen­ing in the world.

As to so­lu­tions, there are some. But with Face­book and Google dom­i­nat­ing con­trol of the in­for­ma­tion that reaches our eyes, though, it is tough not to fall back into the trap of just read­ing what’s been served up to us by the parental fig­ures that run those two com­pa­nies.

As a re­sult, those two are also slowly squeez­ing the life out of al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tive news and news anal­y­sis sites that are be­com­ing more im­por­tant than ever to us all.

Im­age by Joseph David­son, cc

Im­age by Hatici Sosyal, cc

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