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Google's "Opinion" Sparks Interesting Dialog On Tying of Services to Search

By - December 02, 2010

the search cover.pngYesterday’s post on Google having an algorithmic “opinion” about which reviews were negative or positive sparked a thoughtful response from Matt Cutts, Google’s point person on search quality, and for me raised a larger question about Google’s past, present, and future.

In his initial comment (which is *his* opinion, not Google’s, I am sure), Cutts remarked:

“…the “opinion” in that sentence refers to the fact our web search results are protected speech in the First Amendment sense. Court cases in the U.S. (search for SearchKing or Kinderstart) have ruled that Google’s search results are opinion. This particular situation serves to demonstrate that fact: Google decided to write an algorithm to tackle the issue reported in the New York Times. We chose which signals to incorporate and how to blend them. Ultimately, although the results that emerge from that process are algorithmic, I would absolutely defend that they’re also our opinion as well, not some mathematically objective truth.”

While Matt is simply conversing on a blog post, the point he makes is not just a legal nit, it’s a core defense of Google’s entire business model. In two key court cases, Google has prevailed with a first amendment defense. Matt reviews these in his second comment:

“SearchKing sued Google and the resulting court case ruled that Google’s actions were protected under the first amendment. Later, KinderStart sued Google. You would think that the SearchKing case would cover the issue, but part of KinderStart’s argument was that Google talked about the mathematical aspects of PageRank in our website documentation. KinderStart not only lost that lawsuit, but KinderStart’s lawyer was sanctioned for making claims he couldn’t back up… After the KinderStart lawsuit, we went through our website documentation. Even though Google won the case, we tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion.”

The key point, however, is made a bit later, and it’s worth highlighting:

“(the) courts have agreed … that there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine’s particular philosophy.”

Matt reminded us that he’s made this point before, on Searchblog four years ago:

“When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.”

Back then, Matt also took pains to point out that his words were his opinion, not Google’s.

So let me pivot from Matt’s opinion to mine. All of this is fraught, to my mind, with implications of the looming European investigation. The point of the European action, it seems to me, is to find a smoking gun that proves Google is using a “natural monopoly” in search to favor its own products over those of competitors.

Danny has pointed out the absurdity of such an investigation if the point is to prove Google favors its search results over the search results of competitors like Bing or others. But I think the case will turn on different products, or perhaps, a different definition of what constititues “search results.” The question isn’t whether Google should show compeitors standard search results, it’s whether Google favors its owned and operated services, such as those in local (Google Places instead of Foursquare, Facebook etc), commerce (Checkout instead of Paypal), video (YouTube instead of Hulu etc.), content (Google Finance instead of Yahoo Finance or others, Blogger instead of WordPress, its bookstore over others, etc.), applications (Google Apps instead of MS Office), and on and on.

That is a very tricky question. After all, aren’t those “search results” also? As I wrote eons ago in my book, this most certainly is a philosophical question. Back in 2005, I compared Yahoo’s approach to search with Google’s:

Yahoo makes no pretense of objectivity – it is clearly steering searchers toward its own editorial services, which it believes can satisfy the intent of the search. … Apparent in that sentiment lies a key distinction between Google and Yahoo. Yahoo is far more willing to have overt editorial and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results so as to create media that supports those agendas. Google, on the other hand, is repelled by the idea of becoming a content- or editorially-driven company. While both companies can ostensibly lay claim to the mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible” (though only Google actually claims that line as its mission), they approach the task with vastly different stances. Google sees the problem as one that can be solved mainly through technology – clever algorithms and sheer computational horsepower will prevail. Humans enter the search picture only when algorithms fail – and only then grudgingly. But Yahoo has always viewed the problem as one where human beings, with all their biases and brilliance, are integral to the solution.

I then predicted some conflict in the future:

But expect some tension over the next few years, in particular with regard to content. In late 2004, for example, Google announced they would be incorporating millions of library texts into its index, but made no announcements about the role the company might play in selling those texts. A month later, Google launched a video search service, but again, stayed mum on if and how it might participate in the sale of television shows and movies over the Internet.

Besides the obvious – I bet Google wishes it had gotten into content sales back in 2004, given the subsequent rise of iTunes – there’s still a massive tension here, between search services that the world believes to be “objective” and Google’s desire to compete given how the market it is in is evolving.

Not to belabor this, but here’s more from my book on this issue, which feels pertinent given the issues Google now faces, both in Europe and in the US with major content providers:

… for Google to put itself into the position of media middle man is a perilous gambit – in particular given that its corporate DNA eschews the almighty dollar as an arbiter of which content might rise to the top of the heap for a particular search. Playing middle man means that in the context of someone looking for a movie, Google will determine the most relevant result for terms like “slapstick comedy” or “romantic musical” or “jackie chan film.” For music, it means Google will determine what comes first for “usher,” but it also means it will have to determine what should come first when someone is looking for “hip hop.”

Who gets to be first in such a system? Who gets the traffic, the business, the profits? How do you determine, of all the possibilities, who wins and who loses? In the physical world, the answer is clear: whoever pays the most gets the positioning, whether it’s on the supermarket shelf or the bin-end of a record store. ….But Google, more likely than not, will attempt to come up with a clever technological solution that attempts to determine the most “objective” answer for any given term, be it “romantic comedy” or “hip hop.” Perhaps the ranking will be based on some mix of PageRank, download statistics, and Lord knows what else, but one thing will be certain: Google will never tell anyone how they came to the results they serve up. Which creates something of a Catch-22 when it comes to monetization. Will Hollywood really be willing to trust Google to distribute and sell their content absent the commercial world’s true ranking methodology: cold, hard cash?

…Search drives commerce, and commerce drives search. The two ends are meeting, inexolerably, in the middle, and every major Internet player, from eBay to Microsoft, wants in. Google may be tops in search for now, but in time, being tops in search will certainly not be enough.

Clearly, as a new decade unfolds, search alone is not enough anymore, and my prediction that Google will protect itself with the shield of “objectivity” has been upended. But the question of how Google ties its massive lead in search to its new businesses in local, content, applications, and other major markets remains tricky, and at this point, quite unresolved.

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9 thoughts on “Google's "Opinion" Sparks Interesting Dialog On Tying of Services to Search

  1. Open Cobra says:

    When you get to be as big as Google, you become a target for lawsuits. Honestly, the legal issues of what Google does or doesn’t do don’t matter.

    If the EU doesn’t find that Google violated some law, another company, country, or state will try to attack them for something else.

    I think the bigger question is how is Google going to compete with social media?

    Chris Brogan just posted an excellent example of how effective social media is for finding information.

    http://www.chrisbrogan.com/they-will-never-understand

    People want referrals from trusted sources, friends, family, business associates. Social media can provide that information quick.

    Google, in many cases, gives you results that were created years ago. If I want to know what the best pizza is in NY, I don’t want to read an article that was written in 2005.

    Of course, Google does this because they reward age. The older the website or article, the more it is rewarded in the search engine results.

    That’s the nature of SEO. It takes time to get to the top of search results and by the time something useful makes it to the few coveted spots where people actually click, it’s no longer relevant. Not in every case, of course, but many times.

    Okay, I could continue but I’ve gone on long enough. Just my 4 cents.

  2. JG says:

    Enjoyed this post, John. These sorts of discussions are why I read your blog.

    Now, to my comment. Cutts writes: “(the) courts have agreed … that there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine’s particular philosophy.

    Open Cobra continues: “Of course, Google does this because they reward age. The older the website or article, the more it is rewarded in the search engine results.

    What these comments suggest to me is that Google needs to stop being a magic box, and start being a search engine. A search engine is something that allows a user to express his or her information need in as much detail as the user is able, and then fulfills that request.

    My problem with Google is that it doesn’t allow the user to express his or her information need, but instead injects its own opinions onto that need. So when the commenter above, Open Cobra, writes that Google rewards age, what I find myself wanting is a way to express to the search engine the fact that I am looking for something newer for my query on pizza restaurants. But this isn’t just real time search. No, because I also want to be able to say that I want results that are older when it comes to trying to find (for example) a particular quote from Bill Clinton in 1998. I want a 1998 document in this latter case, and a 2010 document in the former case.

    And Google gives me no way to express that information need, no way to add MY opinion to the mixture of search results. I only get Google’s opinion.

    That has been, and continues to be, one of my biggest frustrations as a user.

  3. David says:

    Google does have the right to an editorial process (opinion), and if they were ‘favoring’ their services it’s perfectly fine and perfectly legal.

    The question is does this right get stripped when you have a leading market share? I don’t think so, specially because there is no cost for user to switch to another service (Google is free), and they allow data portability as well.

    Also I don’t think any government body should decide what a search engine should or shouldn’t be, this whole concept of ‘blue link ranking’ could be disrupted rending all this ranking dispute meaningless.

  4. G says:

    I can’t understand why the EU has chosen this case to fight Google on; when from a UK perspective, plain simple tax avoidance might be better – http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6122329.ece
    Why on earth the government here sees fit to cut Google a £100 million break is beyond me.

  5. I tend to think there are shades of what got Microsoft into trouble here wrt favoring its own services. Because Google is free and users can switch to another service is not an argument when they have a market share of 80%+ in the EU and ~70% in the US.

    Microsoft started incorporating utilities and tools into Windows which 3rd party developers were previously making a living from. Next came the integration of Windows with Word, Excel and Powerpoint followed by the Office suite which was bundled by Windows OEMs. The tight integration of Internet Explorer into Windows was Microsoft’s tipping point to real trouble.

    There are definite parallels between Google and Microsoft which Google dismisses with the “it is free and people can switch at any time” arguments but it doesn’t really stand up to deep scrutiny.

  6. It would require extreme naiveté for someone not to realize that every search on Google.COM (or perhaps something like 99.9% of them) returns a youtube video — and likewise with Google’s other properties. In other words: this is a really open-and-shut case. If Google wants to argue that such abnormal statistics are not engineered into Google’s algorithms, they’re going to have a pretty tough time — and they would probably have to disclose their secret sauce (and even then they would probably lose). IMO this might be a pretty good time for Google investors to divest, because it looks like there may be a pretty stiff fine and also a rather bleak outlook for Google’s monopoly to remain intact for much longer in Europe.

    But then again I could be wrong… — right?

    ;) nmw

  7. David says:

    Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that Google’s algorithms intentionally or unintentionally favor Google products. So what? Is a search a “work for hire” with a promise of objectivity? Are you precluded from searching on any other engine if you believe that engine gives results more to your liking? It’s an amazing and totally free service that benefits every Internet user worldwide.
    The Europeans are looking to fund their deficit. What’s your ax to grind?

  8. @David do you mean me?

    I have no axe to grind.

    Google basically has 2 audiences:

    1. people who are too lazy to type domain names correctly

    2. noobs

    So since the results on any search engine follow the wisdom of the language [ http://news.english.net.in/wisdom-of-the-language ], websites can usually be found using google (audience #1) — for example: the top result for “amazon” has little / nothing to do with the Brasilian river / forest region, indeed almost all of the top 10 results have to do with amazon as a domain name.

    Advertisers who try to reach noobs might want to sell steak knives, lottery tickets or subscriptions to get-rich-quick schemes. In the long run, reputable companies will not run ads in the National Enquirer or a spam-filled website.

    Knowledgeable users have moved on.

    Since there is no such thing as a free service, novice users may need to be protected from being fooled. Europe is a highly regulated area — there are many laws that regulate what is permissible and what isn’t. These laws are supposed to protect innocent consumers from dangers such as mad cow disease.

    In the United States, there is more faith in “free markets”. The theory is that people will only make risky investments if they are sufficiently rewarded. However, many people have difficulty gauging how high the risks are. Therefore some companies will go bankrupt or lose a lot of money.

    Google’s switch to profit maximization has been viewed by many investors as a good thing — but perhaps less so in China. Once people realize that the top result is the one that maximizes profit for Google, they may think twice before clicking on it… — and that will ultimately dampen Google’s growth prospects.

  9. BTW: I would be interested to know if the changes to Google’s algorithm(s) incorporated any changes to the weighting of links on getsatisfaction.com and/or mentions of brand names in articles in the New York Times (whether in the paper edition or on nytimes.com) — and whether the publishers of those publications were consulted regarding Google’s interpretation of the quality of the content on their websites.

    I heard somewhere that the journalists covering the piece in the New York Times tried to reach Google representatives but were ask to take up the issue with Danny Sullivan. I wasn’t aware that Danny Sullivan was doing public relations for Google, inc. — and so that was a very fascinating piece of information.