Trump has a new enemy: tech giants, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and the giant search engine Google. In recent weeks, the president has castigated these companies on account of a supposed conspiracy to silence conservatives on their respective platforms. All three are easy targets because of the cryptic nature of the algorithms behind their users’ experiences and the differing experiences each person will have on the various platforms. But clearly, there are some fundamentals about each that Trump does not understand.
Are They the Same?
First, we need to make a clear distinction between social media platforms like Facebook and search engines like Google. They work very differently and therefore must be understood separately. Google plays a significant role in how websites perform, often accounting from one-third up to even 80% or 90% of traffic to any particular site. Social media, on the other hand, accounts for far less of a website’s traffic but is an integral part of how companies try to stay in contact with their users. Changes to social media algorithms have grown to better reflect content that users create rather than stories or websites users share, so companies are pushing harder to communicate with their audiences.
Google has said that social media has no impact on its search rankings. But there is some correlation between how many Facebook “Likes”, shares, and comments a link gets and higher rankings of the website or story in Google’s search results. (This may, however, have more to do with how well Google’s algorithm is picking up on the website’s or story’s overall popularity.) Facebook, on the other hand, seems to be completely isolated from Google, with the search engine having no impact even on Facebook’s own search feature.
Bias on Facebook
In my article for Smerconish.com about social media bias, I described how Facebook’s algorithm would actually work in Republicans’ favor when comparing the newsfeeds of the New York Times and Fox News:
Outside of Facebook showing certain new stories to people based on their interests, Fox News’ posts would be more likely to show up in news feeds because they got far more Facebook Likes and Facebook Shares and, more importantly as of the new year, comments than the New York Times’ posts. This simple recipe for more interactions could lead to more of Fox News’ stories showing up more often.
It is important to note that this situation arises only if a person interacts with Fox News’ and the New York Times’ content equally. Any sort of user bias toward a publication—even so far as spending more time reading one publication’s posts while scrolling—could give that publication’s articles preference over others. In addition, a high degree of self-sorting has to be expected on a platform like Facebook, where users will ignore differing political opinions, causing posts normally from people or businesses who voice those differing opinions to appear less often.
Outside of people like Alex Jones who are openly banned from social media, it would seem that bias would run contrary to what President Trump has said. The only reason a Republican may be seeing more news from liberal outlets is if that Republican views, read, shares, comments on, or reacts to liberal posts more often. In this case, it may be the opposite of self-sorting, rather the result of visceral reactions to posts that make people angry..
Bias on Google
Google’s algorithm is based less on social popularity and more on authority. What is “authority”, you may ask? The code uses 200 different “signals” to determine a web site’s authority, but much of how Google defines authority is still based on how many links a website is getting from other sites with high authority. For example, according to Moz, which provides tools to help determine a web site’s authority, the New York Times’ website has a domain authority of 95 out of a possible 100 and has more than 1.6 million domains linking to it. Compare that to Fox News, the big conservative hitter, who has a domain rating of 93 and 400,000 different domains linking to it. As we can see, the New York Times has the opportunity to show up above Fox News in Google results because Google may see it as a more authoritative website.
We can use another tool, SEMRush, to estimate the amount of traffic each website is getting. It shows that the New York Times is showing up for 22 million different keywords and phrases people type into Google, and it is estimated that it gets 69.8 million visitors each month to its website from people clicking those search results. On the other hand, Fox News shows up for 6.2 million keywords and phrases people type into Google and gets 42.2 million visitors a month from those searches. This shows us that the New York Times voice is more expansive and covers far more topics authoritatively; people are just more likely to find the New York Times in Google results no matter what they search.
Therefore it is obvious how a smaller conservative website, such as Alex Jones’s InfoWars, finds it harder to compete. It has an estimate domain rating of 88 and only 73,000 domains that link to it, according to Moz, and it only appears for 71,000 different words and phrases people type into Google, bringing in an estimated 875,000 visitors a month. While these numbers are still big in comparison to some smaller opinion outlets, they are far lower than the New York Times or even Fox News.
It also must be noted that preferences based on past searches and browser activity and location do have an effect on Google’s search results, so not everyone will see the same results for the same exact search (but preference is not an overriding factor in Google as it is on Facebook).
Trump and other conservatives may not see as many conservative outlets in Google search results as they like, but that has more to do with how well those websites are optimizing themselves for Google and how well the rest of the Internet sees them as an authoritative voice. On the other hand, on the largest social media platform, Facebook, it would seem conservative outlets like Fox News are doing a much better job of stoking the base and showing up higher and more often in news feeds as a result.