Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee this week to address a wide array of concerns including potential anti-conservative bias. A highlight of the hearing was when Representative Zoe Lofgren of California asked Pichai why Donald Trump appears in Google Image search for the word "idiot," which was used as evidence of Google's alleged bias. As a search engine optimization strategist, I will break down why Trump appears under that search and why it isn't because of bias.
How Search Works
When Lofgren asked Pichai why the image landscape for the word "idiot" is full of Trump's face, he was quick to reply with a summary of how Google search works.
"We provide search today for - anytime you type in a keyword, we as Google, we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of webpages in our index," said Pichai. "We take the keyword and match it against web pages and rank them based on over 200 signals, things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it. And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best results for that query. Then we evaluate them with external raters to make sure, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines, and that's how we make sure the process is working."
As we've written about before, the method that Google uses for organizing the billions of web pages has a ton of factors, with the two most important factors being the authority of a website and whether the content of the page addresses what the searcher is looking for. To echo Lofgren's response to Pichai's answer, it is not a "little man sitting behind the curtain," although it's worth noting that Google has a team of Search Quality Raters to ensure that low-quality pages don't begin surfacing.
Why Does Donald Trump Appear on Google Images for 'Idiot'?
Still, these answers don't really explain why, despite these 200 factors, that Trump appears in the search feed for "idiot" instead of another likely insensitive alternative display matching the dictionary definition. Let me break down some theories.
Trump as 'idiot' is a self-fulfilling prophecy
The biggest reason that Trump appears throughout the search result is because people are writing about him appearing there. It may sound a bit absurd, but here are the headlines for the top five results for the search "idiot" in Google Images:
- "Idiot" - from Wikipedia
- "Donald Trump has Topped the Google Image Search Result For 'Idiot'": from News18
- "Donald Trump an idiot according to Google Images": from The Star Online
- "If Time Picked a Loser of the Year, It Would Be: The Idiot [Trump] Sons": from The Daily Beast
- "Search 'idiot', get Trump: how activists are manipulating Google Images" from The Guardian
Three out of five of the results are related to Donald Trump, with an additional one related to his two sons. From those results, the next one not related to Trump is the 12th result, which is the cover of a book titled "The Idiot" by Elif Batuman. Since Google Images will connect their stream to what appears on the news for more generic searches, it makes sense that they would grab images from news stories, especially since they tend to be higher authority for a term that could easily be used in an insensitive context.
Although the search results are currently dominated by these stories, it's worth noting that the original articles that appeared on these results were other stories where Trump was being referred to as "an idiot." An article from New York Magazine was published in September with the headline "Report: Everybody in the White House Considers Trump an Idiot," which was in reference to Bob Woodward's book on Trump's presidency.
Funny enough, even articles that discount the label, such as CNN's "Begala: Donald Trump Is No 'Idiot'", only help to push images of Trump near the top. There was major buzz in late April around allegations of John Kelly referring to Trump as an idiot, which led to most major publications using the term in their headlines -- Washington Post, TIME and Chicago Tribune among them.
It almost sounds too obvious: He appeared under the search for the word "idiot" because regardless of whether it's thrown at him or rebutted, the word just seems to follows him around.
Search intent for 'idiot' isn't obvious
What are you looking for when you search for images with the keyword "idiot"? Although it's likely amplified by this story that does the rounds every few months, more than 305,000 people search for the word every month, according to keyword data tool Ahrefs. It is impossible to deliver the perfect result for users searching this term since they could be looking for a story on the derogatory term that used to be used in psychiatry, a Gordon Ramsay meme, a link to listen to a Green Day album (38,000 people a month search for American Idiot, by the way) or many other things. The one consistent search result around this term is the story about Donald Trump appearing under the word. This falls back into the self-fulfilling prophecy idea, but Google has limited information to address intent when the search term is so broad. If this is a bit confusing, search on Google Images for "best president ever" and you'll see plenty of images of Trump, alongside Obama, Reagan and Roosevelt.
The Bottom Line
Google Images showing pictures of Trump under the keyword "idiot" doesn't prove an anti-conservative bias, but does show that people don't know how Google actually works. There's a good chance that this article will continue to maintain the search landscape for the result in the same way that other publications will.