How the Tories wrote my thesis: the political economy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine

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Sergey Brin and Larry Page invented Google as students at Stanford in 1998. They knew from the beginning how advertising could interfere with the efficiency and integrity of their proposed search engine. In an appendix to their paper, on The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, they noted that ‘the goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users’, and that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers’. They weren’t wrong, yet they had to fund it somehow, and after nearly two decades of conflict between advertising dollars and organising the world’s information (as per Google’s mission statement), a typical search engine results page (SERP) today is surely unrecognisable from what Brin and Page could ever have imagined, infused as they have now become with the neoliberal logic of a linguistic marketplace. There is of course an ever-expanding literature critiquing the political, economic and epistemic implications of search engines, initiated in part by Introna & Nissenbaum back in 2006. This body of scholarship is one which I aspire to contribute towards in my final thesis. In the meantime, I saw a search result this week that pretty much sums up that thesis, and I think I might have Theresa May to thank for that.

I have been researching Google Search and its various distortions for a few years now, but until last week I have never come across an example that has so crystallised the potential political implications and social consequences of a monetised and market-dominating ‘large-scale hypertextual Web search engine’. This example brings out the many powerful themes present within my research; organic vs paid SEO, linguistic capitalism, digital democracy, neoliberalism, power, discourse, politics, money, social inequality, digital economics, philosophy, epistemology, alternative facts and more…

THIS is the search result I am tempted to submit in lieu of my PhD thesis:

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The background

On Monday morning (22nd May 2017), Google search users first started noticing that the Conservatives had taken out an advert with Google about the dementia tax. Despite dismissing the term ‘dementia tax’ as a ‘so-called’ phrase in the hyperlinked advertising copy, the Tory media machine apparently had no problem embracing, harnessing and indeed purchasing the phrase in order to exploit its commercial capabilities on Google’s AdWords platform. As a Tory spokesman said:  ‘It is quite right we take steps to tackle the misinformation and fear being spread by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’.

The first I heard about the whole thing was when a friend and colleague Andrew Dwyer suggested on Twitter that if the Tories were paying Google per click (PPC, or Pay Per Click is how the AdWords system usually works) in order to control and dominate the narrative around their controversial policy, then we should all be continuously searching for ‘dementia tax’, and clicking on the link the Conservatives had paid for. The AdWords platform is the original and fundamental source of the wealth and power Google enjoys today, but advertising this way can be expensive – and ultimately unsustainable – if your advert attracts clicks that you are unable to convert into sales. So hacking the system by clicking on the Tory sponsored dementia tax advert could theoretically cost Theresa May’s campaign dearly. The process is in fact much more complicated than that, however. For example, the more successful click-throughs an advert generates, the higher its ‘quality score’ becomes, thus driving down the cost of each click.

Although AdWords is based on an auction model, quality scoring and other algorithmic ranking factors also help to determine which bids ‘win’ the top spots on the search page, and it is not necessarily the highest bid that comes out top. Advertisers can also buy bundles of ad placements for a fixed price (called PPM – Pay per Impression). This would normally be used for customers who just want their brand or message to have more exposure, and do not necessarily need people to click-through. In addition to this, Google has systems in place to detect and counter apparent click fraud, whether automated or part of a physical campaign, and there are numerous independent anti-click fraud companies too. Google AdWords is a very complicated and confusing economy, which is why an enormous multi-million dollar Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry has grown up to sustain and perpetuate it.

But despite this, the potential financial implications of the Tory’s advert (if the clicking went viral and unchecked, for example) along with a nagging scepticism about the possible manipulation and loop-holing of free ‘charity status’ Google advertising through the AdGrants scheme, initially made me think that the overtly political adverts for ‘dementia tax’ had somehow bypassed the standard commercial (and ostensibly market driven) AdWords procedure. As I have written about elsewhere, it used to be the case that the free AdWords ‘donated’ to Not-For-Profits (NFP) through the AdGrants scheme could not be used for political or religious purposes, but Google dropped that caveat when it started allowing NFP groups to take part in the ‘Redirect Method’. Born out of criticism from government over the spread of extremist literature and sites through platforms such as Google search, The Redirect Method is a scheme spearheaded by Google’s innovation centre Jigsaw (but the method is open to anyone with the right charity status) which uses free AdWords to ‘buy up’ keywords and phrases which might be used by would-be extremists to search for sites, videos, forums or manuals relating to terrorism. Keywords such as ‘Join ISIS’, or ‘Jihad’, would be simple examples, although the whole list is far more detailed and nuanced than that. Instead of being returned a page of ‘organic’ results relating to their search terms, the would-be jihadist instead sees adverts at the top of the page which link to specially curated sites and YouTube footage which aim ‘to confront online radicalization’ by ‘redirecting’ the user to alternative sites. As its brochure states, The Redirect Method:

focuses on the slice of ISIS’ audience that is most susceptible to its messaging, and redirects them towards curated YouTube videos debunking ISIS recruiting themes. This open methodology was developed from interviews with ISIS defectors, respects users’ privacy and can be deployed to tackle other types of violent recruiting discourses online

It is a similar narrative-altering motive and methodology to the Tories’ rationale for using AdWords in order to ‘tackle the misinformation and fear being spread by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’, which is why my cynical mind wouldn’t have been surprised if the dementia tax adverts turned out to be exploiting some charity status loophole to obtain such a dominant position on Google, or indeed had been initiated through a non-official channel. This scenario would of course have meant that Google was not profiting from click-throughs, although the company can and does use these ‘in kind’ charity donations against their tax bill. On a more practical level, AdGrants accounts take many weeks to set up – and almost certainly longer than the period of time it took for the phrase ‘dementia tax’ to gain enough political traction (thanks in part to a Financial Times front page) to warrant the Tory’s need to ‘tackle’ it.

Winners and losers in Linguistic Capitalism

I have been following the adverts for several days now, and am fairly certain that it is plain old ‘linguistic capitalism’, rather than any hidden hand, that is mediating the current narrative of the ‘dementia tax’. But this is not to say that the current politicisation of the word ‘dementia’ has not had an impact on its use in a social environment. On the contrary, shortly after the Conservative advert on Monday morning, a Labour one appeared, and then some time after that, a Liberal Democrat one. (NB – the screenshot above shows the paid-for Tory and Labour adverts, and an ‘organic’ Lib Dem one… more on that later…). And it was not just political parties getting in on the act – privately funded adverts began to appear too, all of them presumably bidding for the keyphrase ‘dementia tax’. One anonymous advert links to www.dementia.tax, a site created last Monday (22nd May 2017) ‘by a voter that really doesn’t want mayhem in power’. As I mentioned before, Google AdWords is a strange and opaque marketplace, but whatever its distortions, the bidding wars going on for ‘dementia tax’ this week have presumably significantly driven up the price of the words. This is potentially great news for Google, who get paid the winning bid price on the pay-per-click system (which is in effect 1 cent more than the second highest bid), but it is less good news for the dementia charities who rely on free AdGrants words (which are capped at $2 a click), and who may in effect have been priced out of the market.

I do not know the full amount the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems or the independents are paying Google for their political exposure, and neither do I know for definite that charities such as Alzheimer’s Society, MindCare and Carers Trust receive free AdGrants advertising. Google’s data and systems are of course proprietary and opaque. What I do know is that according to the Google Keyword Planner (KWP), which suggests appropriate bid prices of words and phrases to advertisers entering the AdWords auction, the phrase ‘dementia tax’ has been valued at zero from 22nd May 2017 to time of writing (29th May 2017). From work I have done on the KWP in the past, however, suggested bid prices – especially those for words or phrases fairly new to the market – take a while to start reflecting changes. I saw this when the suggested bid price for the word ‘Chilcot’ rose from zero to £1.86 the week after the Iraq Inquiry was released in 2016, which I suppose is both a testament to the ingenuity of the SEO industry, as well as a depressing confirmation of the postmodern condition (work forthcoming). I will be keeping an eye on the KWP price data on dementia/dementia tax over the next few weeks. Given what I found in the historic data on the price of ‘brexit’ (see below), I suspect any jump in price may already have occurred, although that would not explain why the suggested price for ‘dementia tax’ is still zero.

Suggested bid prices are of course not necessarily indicative of the actual PPC, and access to that data is only obtainable through a funded campaign. For many reasons, I am reluctant to start getting involved in fake Google advertising for the purposes of research, even if if would afford me better data, especially when the arena is both so political and potentially detrimental to charity organisations. If I can find a way of doing so unproblematically then I will (I have tried contacting the dementia charities concerned to see if they might share their AdWord data), but until then, my own methodology is to use suggested bid prices and an artistic intervention called {poem}.py to critique the system.

Of course, it is important to remember that the coveted phrase here is ‘dementia tax’, and not just the word ‘dementia’, which when searched still returns dementia charity results, and has only risen in price on the KWP by a penny over the course of this week. But there is a significant ‘bleed’ in the way Google monetises language. If the phrase ‘dementia tax’ is not enclosed in inverted commas in the search bar as a ‘verbatim’ search, then the component words become triggers in their own right. This is easiest to see if you search a phrase (without inverted commas) on Google. If there is no discrete match (or at least if none is selected by the algorithm), then the snippets of text under each result will highlight in bold the word that has triggered the hit. Thus the advert below for a dementia charity is served on the search term ‘dementia tax’, despite the word ‘tax’ not appearing in the ad:

Screenshot 2017-05-28 18.56.31

What is really both interesting and worrying is that this advert for Alzheimer’s Society appears alongside other dementia charities at the bottom of the second page of the search results, which in eyeball terms is pretty much oblivion. While a Huffington Post article speculated that ‘the best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google’, there have also been other more rigorous studies into browsing habits that show that people rarely scroll beyond the first page. The adverts for the 3 main political parties, however (and the Lib Dems had taken out a paid ad out at the time of this screenshot) have pride of place at the top of the first page. This economic and political hierarchy of results not only takes up valuable real estate space from the organic results, but reveals the real-time effects this politicisation of AdWords might be having.

Returning to the original thesis-writing screenshot (thanks Theresa)… I hope to have illustrated how all the issues I have discussed in this post are implicit in that one search result (and I haven’t even begun to decipher the whole ‘alternative fact’ elements of the actual content of the ads). It tells some many stories. As well as what I have already discussed, the screengrab was taken from Page 2 of the search results. So not only does it reconfirm the Tories’ bigger spending power over the Labour Party (and that both parties have budgets big enough to reach beyond the first SERP), but that the organic Liberal Democrat result didn’t show up on the first page at all – it had been pushed to the second page by the paid ads. When only the Tory advert showed up at the top of Page 1, the organic Lib Dem result took up the last slot on the first SERP. Much the same seems to be happening to charities and NFPs who cannot compete against well-funded political campaigns. Political parties have of course always paid for advertising, but this new way of harnessing linguistic capitalism through Google AdWords speaks volumes not only about the state of digital democracy; a new fusion of politics and proprietary technology with strong and far-reaching collateral effects, but also about the nuances of individual campaigns and the political economy (and indeed the anatomy) of the search engine itself.

twit

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One thought on “How the Tories wrote my thesis: the political economy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    This is the first of a pair of blogs Pip has written on the effects of political advertising on Google, which started off with the Conservative Party buying the phrase ‘dementia tax’ through Google AdWords. The second blog, ‘Buying Brexit’, was posted here yesterday.

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