Google – objective results for users, my arse!

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We all use Google’s search engine, right? We even use the generic term ‘google’ to describe a web search, right? We all trust their results, right?

It seems that up to 9 out of 10 searches we all make are entrusted to Google. I’m one of those regular users, I must admit. For specialist stuff, I use other search engines, but Google is set as my default.

Every day, I use the facility for looking up all sorts of personal or professional information, but I do not use it for business. And this is where the search giant is decidedly dubious – in returning results to me, the humble enquirer, as it is accused of discriminating against such commercial interests in its own favour.

Google’s original commercial marketing prospectus asserted it was different in its company ethics. “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one,” it boasted back in 2004.


Shifting ‘objective’ search algorithms vs ‘personalised’ favours

I’ve been reading an extended, 5-page article by Spiegel Online International (I admit, I haven’t got to the end, yet).[1] It’s already a damning indictment of our “favourite” search facility, and its unscrupulously sophisticated and top-secret ways of manipulating the results served to us – the unsuspecting, trusting punters.

The German report focuses, among others, on a company that somehow fell foul of Google:

Shivaun Raff was one of the first people to legally challenge the company on competition grounds. Together with her husband, the London-based computer scientist runs a search website called Foundem. The price comparison site is considered a “vertical search engine,” which, in contrast to Google’s horizontal overview search, delves deeply into the sites of many providers.

The company suddenly disappeared in June 2006, or at least it seemed that way to the Raffs. Foundem was no longer appearing on the first page of Google search results and was often somewhere beyond page 10. A brutal reality in the world of online shopping is that results that don’t appear on the first three pages of a Google search are practically nonexistent. The number of visitors to Foundem plunged and sales collapsed.

What had happened? Google had changed its search algorithm. The Foundem founders filed a complaint, but to no avail. They say that no one was willing to explain to them what exactly had caused the downgrade, or what they could do to be moved back up to the top of the list. Foundem was still getting top billing on other search engines, like Yahoo.

The couple filed a complaint with Competition Commissioner Almunia in November 2009. It worked. Only a month later, Google apparently reversed the banishment of Foundem, and the price search engine promptly shot back up to the first page of search results.

Today’s Google results

Just to see what was going on in this case, I did a (Google) search for Foundem’s published case study, using the specific terms of their report, “How Google’s Universal Search Mechanism Threatens Competition and Innovation on the Internet” (fairly specific, I think you’d agree) – to discover an interesting result.[2]

The Spiegel item I was currently reading came top, and the actual document title I searched for was in eighth position – but at least it was (back) on the first page!

I shall now continue to read the article, but leave you with the delightful irony: 6 days ago, Google lost 9% of its market value, some $24 billion (compared to the entire GDP of Bulgaria of $53.5, in 2011, according to Google/Public Data), in (a quote from Reuters):

“… a rare instance of premature filing. Google blamed the misfire on an unauthorized filing by its financial printers, RR Donnelley & Sons Co, and later confirmed the numbers’ accuracy.

“The earnings report, which had not been expected until after the market close, revealed a weakening in Google’s core Internet advertising business and persistent losses at its recently acquired cellphone business, Motorola Mobility.”

Never mind, the company is still worth a bit more than you or I – and we’ll still be using Google Search tomorrow, shan’t we?

What do we learn?

  • We all somehow believe in the Tim Berners-Lee ethic of a free, unfettered, world wide web
  • We all trust Google (in particular, as a search engine)
  • We are impotent mugs – they are, after all, in (big – no, huge) business.  Google’s founders, Page and Brin, are among the world’s financial elite – Page is reputedly the 11th. richest American ($23 bn),  with Brin not far behind at $20 bn.

Presentation of information (selective) means dollars (non-selective) – so, pay up, stupid punters!

The trouble is, we think we are independent information-seeking freewheelers, whereas the truth is that we have all become mere unwitting clients, in our spontaneous search for information and knowledge. And we have no real choice, in the end.

[1]: Spiegel Online International

[2]:’How Google’s Universal Search Mechanism Threatens Competition and Innovation on the Internet’

Image source: Spiegel Online International


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