Undecided voters paid far more attention to search rankings than previously thought and as such search results can alter the outcome by up to 12 percent in some cases without a majority of the voters realising it, suggests a study led by Robert Epstein.
A senior research psychologist at the California-based American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, Epstein wanted to see if the higher ranking of a political candidate had a similar effect on voters as it does in the case of a product.
Research suggested that altering search results has a major effect on voting
Epstein recruited more than 2,000 undecided voters between the ages of 18 and 70 from 26 of India's 28 states. The voters were allotted 15 minutes to read search results of a fictitious search engine called "Kadoodle".
These favoured one of the three leading prime ministerial candidates: Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, Arvind Kejriwal of Aaam Aadmi Party or Narendra Modi of Bharatiya Janata Party.
Epstein and his team found that the search engine rankings favouring a particular candidate drove around 12 percent of the votes toward that candidate.
This "Search Engine Manipulation Effect" or SEME was enough to change the results of elections won by margins of up to 2.9 percent, they said.
"If two candidates were both trying to push their rankings higher, they would be competing, and that's fine," said Epstein in a release.
"But if Google, which has a monopoly on search in India, were to favour one candidate, it could easily put that candidate in office by manipulating search rankings, and no one could counter what they were doing.
"Even if without human intervention the company's search algorithm favoured one candidate, thousands of votes would still be driven to that candidate."
"Of particular concern," Epstein said, "is the fact that 99 percent of the people in our study seemed to be unaware that the search rankings they saw were biased."
"To prevent undue influence, election-related search rankings need to be regulated and monitored, as well as subjected to equal-time rules," he added.
In response to Epstein's latest research, Google officials as cited by the Washington Post stated: "Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning.
"It would undermine people's trust in our results and company if we were to change course."