A whopping 80% of Australians say search engines should disclose algorithm changes, as inquiry into news code continues

Google threatens to leave Australia

An overwhelming 80% of Australians believe that search engines should be more transparent when experimenting with their algorithms, new data reveals.

The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology surveyed over 1,000 Australians last week in response to Google’s admission to hiding some news websites in search results in the face of the Morrison government’s proposed News Media Bargaining Code.

The survey found 78–80% of Australians believe search engines should disclose details of the experiments they conduct and should first obtain consent from the websites affected.

Veena Gandhi, digital strategist and director of Digital Street, says while the experiments did not involve small businesses, they show just how powerful Google is.

According to Gandhi, Google has tweaked its algorithms before — without warning — and reduced the effectiveness of search engine optimisation (SEO) strategies that she and other small businesses use to drive traffic to their websites.

“Google often makes SEO changes out of the blue,” she says.

The survey of a nationally representative sample of Australians was carried out in response to Google’s claim that it conducted “a few experiments” to measure “the impacts of new businesses and Google Search on each other”.

The survey also found three-in-four Australians think search engines should make all of their algorithms publicly available so that users can access them.

Gandhi, however, believes it is unrealistic to expect Google to disclose in detail the algorithms that its business is built on.

“Obviously, that would put the business in jeopardy because anyone could copy that algorithm and create a similar search engine,” Gandhi says.

Google has a responsibility to business owners to give as much information as possible about future changes to algorithms, Gandhi says, because businesses are heavily reliant on Google searches to attract customers.

Google’s experiments with Australian news websites came amid ongoing debate between ‘big tech’, the Australian media and the Morrison government over the proposed New Media Bargaining Code, which is under inquiry in a Senate committee. The code would force Google and Facebook to pay Australian news businesses for content featured on their platforms.

Announcing the findings of the survey on Wednesday, Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, said his research shows there is strong opposition in the Australian community to Google’s behaviour.

“The only thing this experiment has shown is the extraordinary level of control that these global corporations have over the flow of information in our society,” Lewis said.

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