Now That’s What I Call Bundling: Can Google Throw Elections?

No company in history has had this much power to literally alter the face of governments around the world”

Dr. Robert Epstein

In a startling new study, “Democracy at Risk: Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voting Preferences Substantially Without Voter Awareness” Dr. Robert Epstein and Dr. Ronald E.  Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology have determined that:

In a double-blind, controlled experiment, web pages and search engine results from an actual election were presented to three groups of eligible voters. In two of the groups, rankings favored one candidate or the other. Preferences shifted dramatically toward favored candidates, with 75% of subjects showing no awareness of the manipulation. In a second experiment, voter preferences again shifted in the predicted direction, and the proportion of people who were unaware of the manipulation was increased by slightly altering the rankings to mask the favoritism. In a third experiment, a more aggressive mask was used to hide the manipulation, and no subjects appeared to be aware of it, even though voter preferences still shifted in the predicted directions. We conclude (1) that the outcomes of real elections—especially tight races—could conceivably be determined by the strategic manipulation of search engine rankings and (2) that the manipulation could be accomplished without people being aware of it.
An anecdote:  During the 2008 presidential campaign, I searched using Google for “Joe the Plumber”.  I noticed that the search results returned one paid search result:  “Obama Tax Policy” with a link to  This struck me as odd and I tried the same search on Yahoo and Bing.  Both returned ads for plumbers and plumbing supplies.  I went back to Google and tried it again.  Same thing.  I filed this away as one of those loose ends in life that might one day make sense.
Or not.
Dr. Epstein is interviewed for the PBS Newshour:
This is, of course, a natural extension of what Senator Mike Lee told Eric Schmidt at the Google hearings before the U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.  Good thing that Ed Felton was the CTO at the FTC and let Google off the hook for “cooking the books.”

2 thoughts on “Now That’s What I Call Bundling: Can Google Throw Elections?

  1. That just says that someone at Google was quicker to work out that people searching for “Joe the Plumber” weren’t looking for someone to clear their drains and found an advertiser. No surprise, this is why Google is killing Bing and Yahoo.


  2. As it was a paid ad, might it instead say that someone at Google was quicker to work out that someone was willing to “pay” them to serve only one ad to people searching for “Joe the Plumber”. If they were paid. And if they were paid, why wouldn’t the same campaign also pay Bing and Yahoo? Perhaps because Google was vastly superior? Or maybe because Bing and Yahoo didn’t “share” that exclusivity.

    We’ll never know, which is one of the points of the study.


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