Late last year, Google was hit with explosive allegations of political bias in its search results. Investigations claimed that the search giant’s autocomplete functionality appeared to have a heavy right-wing bias for a variety of search terms ranging from subjects such as climate change to homosexuality.
Some allege that the disproportionate slant in auto-complete political orientation was a byproduct of internal algorithm changes following similar allegations last September by Russian news agency Sputnik News. However, those claims suggested that Google’s results were biased towards Hillary Clinton at the time.
In either scenario, observers are rightfully concerned about the impact of overly positive or negative sentiments being expressed about a specific cause or candidate. In an absolutely unscientific study, I tested the current likelihood of Google still implementing manual bias into their search results using the following search query:
Given the low probability that Google would describe themselves as “slow,” small,” or “stupid,” I’ll go ahead and give them a passing grade here.
But all kidding aside, the impact of autocomplete and suggested search results in formulating biases should not be understated. Cognitive biases ranging from confirmation bias to negativity bias and more can be exacerbated by search engine influences.
How Search Marketing Bias Might Impact a Business
Outside of the realm of politics, bias in search marketing results can be extremely harmful to a business. As an example, consider the autocomplete suggestions for cable and internet provider Comcast:
While most consumers are already likely to have a pre-conceived opinion of a large company like Comcast one way or the other, a suggested result like “worst company” is far from favorable. However, with a near monopoly in some regions, and massive market capitalization, Comcast can withstand such negativity. On the contrary, for small companies with limited marketing and PR resources, negative autocomplete and suggested search results can be highly damaging.
According to Google support documentation, autocomplete suggestions come from a variety of sources and can come from “relevant searches you’ve done in the past” or “trending stories” based on what others are searching for. But the search engine very specifically states that “search predictions are generated by an algorithm without human involvement.”
Therefore, presumably a high volume of queries related to a business and “bad service,” “ripoffs,” or similar could lead to negative suggested results. Whether fairly deserved or not, businesses of all sizes should check for such issues with their brand names in search results.
What Businesses Can Do About Search Marketing Bias
While many businesses might seek to suppress negative results in autocomplete and suggested search results, good luck trying to do so. Furthermore, the reality is that negative bias is a strong part of human nature. Humans have evolved to be reactive to threats. By nature, we are inclined to try and solve unknowns and gather knowledge about negative things as a protection mechanism. If a prospective customer has heard or read something negative about your business in the past, they will likely seek results that reinforce that view whether it’s suggesting in the autocomplete results or not.
The first step to overcoming bias in search marketing results that may impact your business is acknowledging its inevitability. Resist the urge to dismiss negative perception as an outlier, and tackle the problem head on. Do so by implementing some of the following strategies:
- Include testimonials from former skeptics. In a 2014 post on their blog, Wordstream offers some useful advice on how to overcome confirmation bias and negative bias on your landing pages:
“Reach out to your current clients and ask them if they weren’t entirely sold on your product or service to begin with, then ask them to provide details about how they came around. Include specific details, such as concerns about pricing, tempting offers from your competitors, and anything else that could dissuade biased customers from converting.”
Once accepting that negative perceptions of your company may exist in the search results, target those terms with landing pages featuring real customer testimonials that invoke empathy and may be able to overcome biases.
- Gather feedback straight from your target demographic. All too often business owners and marketers assume they already know what their customers want and how they think. Always challenge your own assumptions, and solicit feedback whenever possible. In a post on the Unbounce blog, Senior Conversion Optimizer Michael Aagaard writes:
“Depending on the case at hand, I choose the method and tool that’ll help me get the best insight as fast as possible. My trusty toolbox includes:
- Web analytics
- Feedback polls (check out my recent webinar with HotJar)
- Customer interviews
- Usability testing (both in-house and remote)
- Click/scroll maps
- Session recording
- Form analytics”
- Accept that there may be an element of truth in that undesirable bias. Is Comcast the “worst company” as suggested in the example earlier in this post? Almost certainly not, though have been some high-profile examples of bad customer service and business practices associated with the company. As a result, after some introspection, the company announced a $300m plan to improve customer service in May of 2015, as part of an effort to rehabilitate their public perception.
Similarly, while those 1-star Yelp reviews of your business or that specious RipoffReport.com issue may be dubious at best, find the positives in that negative. Recognize that those extremely slanted views represent a window into the biases that may be adversely impacting your company. By tailoring content that addresses points of confusion about products and services, and by proactively addressing those concerns, the impact of such reviews can be mitigated and future negative reviews may be prevented.
In a world rife with cognitive biases, “fake” news, and other unwanted influences, it is virtually impossible to control outside perception of a business or service in the search engine results or elsewhere. However, accepting the existence of such biases, and taking active measures to acknowledge and address them is critical.