Earlier this week, President Donald Trump proclaimed on Twitter that Google search is biased in favor of left-wing news organizations and against conservatives.
The rationale behind the claim appears to be an analysis conducted by PJ Media, a conservative news website. In its analysis, PJ Media discovered “left-leaning sites comprised 96 percent of the total results [for the term ‘Trump’]”.
It also characterized this outcome as “[the] blatant prioritization of left-leaning and anti-Trump media outlets”.
In response, Google’s parent company Alphabet stated: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology”.
To address these claims, we analyzed each of the top 25 right-wing and left-wing websites listed in PJ Media’s study. We looked at the quantity of unique links pointing into each news website as well as the total content output by each news website over a 24 hour period.
The results are listed in the tables below. Overall, from the websites analyzed we discovered:
- Left-wing news websites attract more links than right-wing news websites; and
- Left-wing news websites create more content than right-wing news websites.
While President Trump addressed Google search as well as Google news, it’s important to clarify the two services are distinct in how they assign rankings (we’ve gone into more depth on this below).
To avoid muddying the waters, it’s also important to clarify that accusations of bias from conservatives take on multiple forms, namely:
- That’s Google’s employees are predominantly of a single political persuasion;
- That Google’s internal workplace policies discriminate against conservative viewpoints;
- That Google’s natural search (top 10) results discriminate against conservative viewpoints; and
- That Google’s news results discriminate against conservative viewpoints.
This article only addresses points three and four and speaks nothing for the validity or invalidity of points one or two.
Are left-wing websites more valuable than right-wing websites?
Prior to commenting on bias within search results, it’s important to understand how Google determines rankings.
A primary contributing factor determining how a page or website will perform in natural search (not necessarily under the news tab) is the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing into that page or website.
This is evidenced by the seminal research paper, the Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Search Engine, written by Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the late 90’s.
It’s also evidenced by Google’s employees. When asked in 2016 to name the two most important factors contributing to the visibility of a page in search, Google’s Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev stated:
“I can tell you what they are. It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site”.
Finally, on its “how search works” page, Google states:
“In order to assess trustworthiness and authority on its subject matter, we look for sites that many users seem to value for similar queries. If other prominent websites on the subject link to the page, that’s a good sign the information is high quality”.
A backlink is simply a link from one page to another page hosted on an external domain i.e. a hyperlink. When one page links to another page, a search engine interprets that link as a “vote” in favour of the page being linked to1.
With a link comes a transfer of “value” (technically referred to as PageRank) – the more links a page acquires the more “value” it accrues and the higher it ranks in search (the technical explanations are significantly more nuanced than this however this explanation serves the purpose of this article).
There are many caveats to this explanation, with the most notable being some links are more valuable than others. Moreover, “value” isn’t the only factor at play. Other factors include:
- The anchor text (link text) of the linking website or page;
- The age or freshness of the link2; and
- Whether it’s a unique link3 i.e. subsequent links from the same website carry less value.
This bring us to a reason why left-wing websites predominate in Google’s natural (top 10) listings: the left-wing websites analyzed are more valuable, from a backlinks perspective, than the right-wing websites analyzed.
There are more valuable left-wing websites
Backlinks analysis tools give search marketers insight as to the quantity and quality of backlinks pointing into pages of content on a website.
While PJ Media’s analysis identified a pattern of visibility favouring left-wing websites, backlinks analysis tools also outline a pattern: left-wing news websites attract significantly more unique links than right-wing news websites.
We analyzed the top 25 news websites listed in each column of PJ Media’s study. The results are listed below:
From this analysis, we’ve identified that right-wing websites make up just 6 of the top 25 news websites, or 19 of the bottom 25 news websites, for unique linking domains.
For clarification purposes, we analyzed BBC.com instead of the far more valuable domain, BBC.co.uk. BBC.co.uk has more unique linking domains than any other left-wing news organization.
When we look at the right-wing websites that rank prominently, it’s also clear many do no sit comfortably on the right-left axis outlined in Sharyl Attkisson’s media bias chart.
For example, according to the chart the Wall Street Journal veers further to the left than most right-wing websites, as does The Economist.
Moreover, The Daily Mail utilizes the .co.uk ccTLD (country-code top-level domain) and is arguably more likely to be targeted to UK searchers.
That said, it’s also worth noting The Hill veers further to the right of most left-wing websites but not as far to the right as the Wall Street Journal veers to the left.
All of this brings us to another likelihood: left- or right-wing websites will likely attract a disproportionate share of valuable links from other left- or right-aligned websites.
We don’t have data indicating this, it’s just an opinion; however, when a news organization writes about a topic they require sources. In our estimation, the sources writing on that topic, by virtue of writing on that topic, will be more likely to share the ideology of the news organization.
In other words, we believe it’s fair to assume The Daily Beast is more likely to link to CNN than Fox News.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple – just because two organizations are ideologically opposed it doesn’t necessarily follow that they won’t link to each other. For example, CNN links to Fox News, and Fox News to CNN, despite many media commentators categorizing them on opposing sides of the political spectrum.
However, viewed in this manner, and in consideration of the totality of the web, it becomes easier to understand how links may be distributed between valuable and less valuable websites along ideological lines.
It’s also worth noting that the majority of traffic received monthly or yearly by news websites from Google will likely be to its back catalog of content, and from natural search, rather than from content created to fulfill the needs of Google News.
When a news organization publishes content, it lives in Google News temporarily but in natural search on a more permanent basis, and can be returned for a query 1, 10 or 100 days or more after it’s published.
What about output?
News output (which is seemingly a ranking factor in Google News – see below) is also another key consideration. To account for this, we pulled the total pages indexed by Google’s news crawler from each news website over the last 24 hours – the results are listed below.
Overall, the news organizations we analyzed published 4,899 news reports to Google News in a 24 hour period. Of these reports, 2,990 originated from left-wing websites while 1,909 originated from right-wing websites.
In other words, right-wing websites account for 39% of all news stories published, while left-wing websites account for 61%.
For clarification purposes, some of the organizations listed don’t publish, or publish a very limited selection of news stories, to Google News. From our analysis, MSNBC and the Associated Press (provides content to other news organizations) have very limited coverage in Google News. Moreover, BBC.com’s output appeared to be limited to foreign language content, so we analyzed BBC.co.uk instead.
Likewise, smaller right-wing publications, including The American Spectator and Gateway Pundit don’t appear to publish to Google News.
From analyzing some of this content, and if we assume the definition of “right-wing news organization” is “the publication of reports amenable to right-wing values,” it’s also difficult to appreciate how Forbes, one of the largest daily contributors of content, has been classified as “right-wing” in Sharyl Attkisson’s media bias chart.
For example, in the last 24 hours it has published the following content:
- Trump’s Attack On Canadian Farmers Is The Wrong War
- The White House Allegedly Has A Marijuana Smear Squad. Cannabis Experts Say Bring It On.
- Trump Falsely Accuses NBC’s Lester Holt Of Getting ‘Caught Fudging’ Russia Interview
Its story selection around political topics is in stark contrast to that of other right-wing news organizations e.g. Fox News.
If we were to shift Forbes’ output from the right-wing to the left-wing, the overall picture changes dramatically. This said, there’s also a case to be made that both Reuters and the BBC could be classified as “centrist”.
The content output includes all content published to Google News by a news organization, including foreign language content, op-eds and syndicated content.
What makes Google News distinctive?
Moving away from natural search, it’s unclear the extent to which symmetry exists between the ranking factors behind natural search and the ranking factors behind news search.
Google is notably vague on the factors that influence how content ranks under the news tab.
On its Google News ranking page, Google states that the freshness, diversity and originality of content are considered, among many other factors, when assigning rankings in Google News.
In an interview with Search Engine Land in 2009, Google’s former business product manager for Google News, Josh Cohen, stated:
“In a lot of discussions with publishers, we do talk about the ranking side, the clustering process and what we’re trying to do. There’s the story ranking, where we show the top stores of the day in a given category. What’s the aggregate editorial interest is in a given story? What does everyone have on their front page? That’s going to drive the results. What do editors collectively feel is the top story of the day?”
Cohen also goes onto say that each news organization is given a source rank for each category of content e.g. business, technology, sports, etc. to which they contribute. In other words, some news organizations may rank more prominently for certain categories than others.
There are many more factors when it comes to analyzing the independent ranking capability of a single news story. According to Cohen, these include original content, timeliness and local relevancy.
Meanwhile, Bill Slawski of SEO By The Sea, in his analysis of a patent approved in 2009, indicated even more factors may be at play, including:
- the average length of an article;
- a “breaking news score”;
- circulation statistics of the news source;
- the size of staff associated with the news source; and
- the breadth of coverage by the news source.
If these factors are in play, it begins to explain why right-wing news sources seemingly acquire less visibility in Google News than their left-wing counterparts, particularly if the scale of output is a consideration.
That said, we also need to consider this patent was submitted in 2003 and approved in 2009.
It’s also important to consider that ranking in the “top stories” one box in Google’s search results will likely draw significantly more traffic to a news source than simply ranking under the news tab.
How can right-wing websites improve visibility in Google search and Google news?
Based on the indicators above, right-wing websites, if we’re to consider them a collective, could benefit tremendously from publishing more content.
While output at the top doesn’t necessarily speak to output across less popular left-leaning and right-leaning websites, it is somewhat evident that the left is disproportionately represented across online platforms that host political conversations, and particularly the internet’s most popular platforms.
For example, a recent study of British social media users, published in Sage journals, indicates “social media users…are more liberal and pay more attention to politics”. It goes onto conclude that “Twitter and Facebook are not representative of the general population”.
In another study, Pew Research found, “The reaction on Twitter to major political events and policy decisions often differs a great deal from public opinion as measured by surveys”.
It also states, “In some instances, the Twitter reaction was more pro-Democratic or liberal than the balance of public opinion”.
Of course, we’re taking leaps here.
Needless to say what happens on Google doesn’t neatly conform to what happens on Twitter; however, combined with the results above, it does signal that if people of right-wing values wish to see Google and social media platforms become more representative of right-wing opinion, the key is likely more participation and output.