Auditing Google Search Engine

Since their creation, search engines, and especially Google, have been engaging in a never-ending battle with web spammers, who are continuously trying to break their defenses and land their dubious products in the first results page. One of the outcomes of this prolonged battle is the invention of the search engine optimization (SEO) industry, an industry that for years has been helping businesses and individuals to make their websites visible to Google’s algorithms. As it is often the case, it comes in two flavors: white-hat SEO and black-hat SEO. If you google about information on how Google’s search engine works, more often than not, you will find articles from SEO blogs and websites trying to explain Google’s search technology. This knowledge about how to make your website rank high in search engines has been a boon for a different group of merchants: the propagandists. The ones who want to “sell” conspiracy theories, racism, misogyny, while supremacy, and every form of fringe theory on science, history, and culture.

To learn more, read Prof. Mustafaraj’s explanations on how SEO principles can be used to promote misogynist content or historical misinformation:

Are Women Evil? Hacking Google’s Search Results

Presidents in the Clan? SEO Techniques to Hack History

The cases described in the blog posts originated in media reports, and our goal is to systematically study how frequently this kind of harmful information makes it to the top of search result pages on Google. For that reason we have built a software infrastructure that we call the SERP (search engine result page) Observatory. This observatory allows us to follow a et of query phrases over time and identify when unexpected websites break into the first page of results.

Cred Lab research students, in their own independent research, have used the SERP Observatory to assess search results for pseudoscience theories, the depiction of racial and religious minorities or that of developing countries in Central America. Two other topics that we have investigated using the SERP Observatory are the depiction of news sources on the search results and that of political candidates or other political figures.

Here is a list of our research papers:

WebSci 2018

C+J 2019

Wikipedia 2019


FAT* 2020

Additionally, here are two blog posts that touch upon some of the themes of the research papers: