The Search Neutrality Debate

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With the volume of content I’m generating that can be interpreted as attacks on Google, it may appear I’m on an anti-Google crusade. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say that’s really not the case. I’m just concerned about the future of the internet and the power large corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Apple wield over it.

There has been a lot of publicity recently about the concept of search neutrality: the idea that search engines should provide neutral, unbiased results and not favour their own properties or those they have beneficial relationships with.

This debate has been raging for years, but it received a recent boost when Ben Edelman, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, published a survey which appears to show that Google does tend to prefer its own properties in its search results.

Since the publication of the Edelman survey a growing mountain of criticism has emerged, with many claiming the study was deeply flawed. The consensus amongst my SEO peers does seem to be that the study is misleading and inaccurate.

However the study focuses solely on the organic search results provided by Google, and that is only part of the picture. There are other aspects of the search result pages – such as the OneBox – where Google is blatantly promoting its own services, which might require proper scrutiny.

Adding to the search neutrality debate Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, published a blog post yesterday in which he refers to an essay by James Grimmelman, associate professor at New York Law School, which seems to dissect the concept of search neutrality.

I’ve left two comments on Matt’s blog – both ‘awaiting moderation’ at the time of writing this now approved and visible for all – but I felt my rebuttal of the essay as well as the points Matt makes deserve a separate blog post.

First, I don’t think the search neutrality debate is one about webspam as Matt seems to suggest. I think we can all agree that spammy websites are bad and need to be ousted from the SERPs.

Nor do I think the debate is about making the search algorithms public. These algos are Google’s intellectual property and thus deserve full protection. Making the search algorithms public will only play in to the hands of spammers and are likely to ensure the search results will be dominated by spam shortly afterwards, so that is definitely not a solution.

In my opinion the search neutrality debate is about Google and other search engines giving preference to their own properties over those of their rivals, and I think it expands beyond the listing of organic results and should encompass other elements on the SERPs, such as the OneBox and paid ads.

Having read Grimmelman’s essay I have to admit I’m not terribly impressed by it. The author starts off with his 8 principles of search neutrality, which I think should be labelled ‘elements’ instead – search neutrality encompasses several of the listed principles (though not all eight in my opinion) and by defining each individually I think Grimmelman is muddying the waters somewhat. It also makes it much easier for him to subsequently shoot them all down, having narrowed each down to easily falsifiable premises.

Additionally Grimmelman erects straw men arguments for some of the definitions. For example for the objectivity principle the author states: “The unvoiced assumption here is that search queries can have objectively right and wrong answers.” This is a weasel phrase and is a misrepresentation of the objectivity principle.

Also, by ignoring the interplay of the eight principles – and by including principles which are at best circumstantially applicable to search neutrality but should not form part of a serious debate (equality and transparency) – the author distorts the actual issue at the core of the matter.

Search neutrality is an important and topical issue. There are genuine concerns about dominant corporations abusing their power to consolidate their positions in the marketplace, and these concerns deserve proper investigation and debate.

In my opinion Google is abusing its power and does not have the best interests of its users in mind all the time. After all, Google is a publicly traded corporation and as such has one overruling legal imperative: to maximise shareholder value. Users don’t necessarily factor in to that.

Comments

  1. By on

    There has to be a happy medium somewhere that, perhaps, equally frustrates and satisfies a majority of the parties involved.

    On the one hand, Google.com belongs to Google, Inc. and Google, Inc. should be free to do whatever it pleases with Google.com. People have the option of using another search engine if they don’t like what they see in the search results served by Google.com.

    On the other hand, now that Google has achieved a significant advantage over other search engines, it does have a moral obligation not to use that advantage in search market share (as measured by number of queries performed) to reduce the amount of traffic it sends to other sites (which is the real search market for the rest of us).

    It may be better and ultimately easier to mount a campaign to show people why they would benefit from using other search engines rather than simply focus on what one thinks may be the rights or wrongs of the situation.

    The marketplace can be cruel and whimsical and no matter how large the search engine it cannot mask the fact there are other search tools out there. Google is so popular because people choose to use it.

    Reply »

  2. By on

    @Michael: yes there is something to say for the corrective power of the market, but this depends on informed end users making the correct choices. Unfortunately this rarely actually happens when it comes to technology, hence why we ended up with abominations like Windows Vista, iTunes, and VHS.

    The Grimmelman essay actually explores that briefly in its introduction and makes its strongest point there: users don’t necessarily know better, nor make the right choices. This places greater emphasis on the moral compass of the corporations, which as we know is not always a smart move as they are legally obliged to maximise profits. If a company is too nice to its users, its shareholders can oust the management and replace it with more ruthless types.

    Yes I do hope Google finds a happy medium. To be honest I think they’re close to finding the sweet spot where they can make loads of money whilst still providing users with excellent services. I hope Google takes the fuss around search neutrality to heart and sees it as a signal never to lean too heavily towards profit maximisation at any cost, and will do their best to find that sweet equilibrium.

    Reply »

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