When we ask who should take the rap for the decline of local news, most folks agree the blame partially lies on Google’s shoulders. The tech giant has spent the past decade systematically swallowing a larger and larger chunk of the digital ad market, diverting the dollars that outlets—particularly smaller outlets—desperately need.
That’s not the only diversion that Google’s been doing. In an article published in the Washington Post this week, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the National University of Singapore described how they tried to figure out whether Google might be stymieing people hunting for local news on the company’s search engine. Close to 100,000 searches later, the team reported that, yep, it looked like Google’s engine defaulted to squashing struggling local outlets, and highlighting prominent national publishers in their stead.
The team’s findings were published in the December issue of Nature Human Behaviour.
The team ran their Google News audit by compiling the search results that cropped up after toggling their browser’s location settings to put their locale in a specific county. They plugged the same two sets of search terms for each of the roughly 3,000 counties across the country: one meant to portray someone looking for more locally-focused news, and a second meant to portray someone searching for something more nationally-focused. Local searches used phrases like “crime near” or “weather near” the county in question, and focused mostly on topics that locals would be particularly interested in, like school board elections or transit issues. National readers, meanwhile, looked for topics like “immigration” or “Syria” or “climate,” and didn’t give any indication they were near anywhere in particular.
Once the searches were searched, the team compiled the headlines, outlets, and web addresses for the first hundred results that Google returned. These outlets were also put in one of two buckets: “national,” which was used to categorize the New York Times’s and CNN’s of the world, and “local,” which was for the Portland Tribune’s and the Queens Courier’s. All totaled, the team says they ran about 96,000 searches that gave them a grand total of 9,000(!) outlets for them to classify either way.
To narrow things down a bit—and because statistically speaking, nobody in their right mind would scroll through hundreds of search results to scan for news—the team also checked whether local or national outlets were more likely to be given that prime, first page real estate. One recent study from the search engine firm Sistrix found that 28% (or a little more than a quarter) of people tend to keep clicks confined to the first result they get from Google search.
Once those numbers were run over and over for every county, all evidence seemed to point towards national news dominating the first few pages of Google’s returned results—even if the questions they asked were county-specific.
As an example, the team explained in their Post analysis that while looking for “early voting” as a search term in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, “only 20 percent of the top 10 returned searches were from local outlets.”
“Certainly at least some people searching for that term hoped to get information about local or state early voting information,” they went on, noting that maybe if readers “kept scrolling past the 20th result,” they would find something locally-focused.
Stepping back, the researchers found that Google’s top pick for a search term was a national outlet close to three quarters of the time: 74%. It didn’t matter whether they were running their searches set out of a county with no local outlets, or a place rife with local papers—the results were the same.
The world’s biggest search engine, for its part, has offered up its own spin on payment programs meant to give publishers back the funding that Google’s been earning off their backs until now. But as we’ve pointed out before, these sorts of payoffs are something of a bandaid on the festering wound that Google ripped into the digital news industry—a bandaid that does nothing to remedy the newsrooms of past and future that are forced to shutter because of its practices.
As for the local newsrooms that remain, well, they’re still struggling to survive. And unless Google makes some changes—fast—its search engine seems primed to keep it that way.
Gizmodo has reached out to Google for a comment on the study. We’ll make sure to update if we hear back.
You can check out the team’s full academic paper here.