The 'search neutrality' debate, and one way to end it: Give Android users a choice
Google's search engine may not always serve up the truth, the Web truth and nothing but the truth. Do you want to make a federal case out of that?
The issue behind that question goes by the name of "search neutrality."
The term first surfaced a few years ago, in part because opponents of net-neutrality regulations began talking up that angle. (In retrospect, that PR tactic looks like a clever exploitation of the press's weakness for he-said-she-said stories that look "balanced" by quoting each side attacking the other.)
For all that chatter, no serious proposals for search-neutrality regulation have advanced in Washington. But the European Union's antitrust regulators launched an investigation of Google last year and have begun asking sites whether they think Google manipulates search results.
As one result, Google sent its search guru Matt Cutts to Washington this week to talk to policymakers and journalists. Cecilia Kang wrote about Cutts's "education tour" on Post Tech yesterday, while I had the chance to sit down with Cutts (and Post editorial writer Eva Rodriguez) on Wednesday. Here's what I think of this.
First, Web search is inherently an editorial act, and not an easy one, either. You're asking a site to sift through about a trillion pages online and find the ones most relevant to your query in a second or two. The whole point of search -- as in journalism -- is to leave out things judged to be less relevant.
Second, the job of Web search is made more difficult because everybody wants to game the system. Ethical Web authors practice "search engine optimization"--adding keywords to a page and writing descriptive, if sometimes dull, titles -- to ensure that their work is visible to search sites. Unethical types exploit SEO tactics to inflate the visibility of pages that people wouldn't want to read otherwise.
Cutts's job consists of adjusting Google's algorithms to squelch spammers' tactics -- although Google can weed out offending sites from its index by hand, Cutts said he would far rather tweak an equation. I said that sounded like a "neutral" solution, since it targets behavior rather than an individual, but Cutts didn't quite appreciate my use of that term.
By an increasing number of accounts, Google has been falling down on that job. For example, the New York Times' David Segal wrote a brilliant piece about how a shady eyewear merchant boosted his visibility by becoming the subject of so many customer complaints online; shoppers looking for a new set of glasses saw his firm's name top search results.
In a similar vein, software-development blogger Jeff Atwood complained in a Jan. 3 post that Google -- through whose searches 88.2 percent of his audience reaches his site -- had begun favoring spam sites that "scraped" content from his blog.
In both cases, Cutts and his staff saw those complaints and adjusted Google's search software to thwart those spamming tactics.
I've seen Google slip up myself. On one day in November, Google Trends -- its fascinating, useful summary of what people are looking for -- showed "EarthLink webmail" among the top search topics. Considering that dial-up Internet provider's small customer base, there's no way that reflected a natural level of interest.
I find it utterly implausible that Google charges sites for placement in its search results, as the EU's inquiry insinuates. (I'll leave it to Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan to knock that down: "I've covered Google since the company first began. I have never, ever, seen that type of allegation hold up.") But it's eminently plausible that innocent sites might unintentionally suffer from Google's constant adjustment of its algorithms -- more than 500 times last year, Cutts said.
That's nowhere near a cause for regulation, but it is ground for concern. Google could address that by better communicating these search changes to its users. I don't expect it to document every change in detail -- that would simply tell spammers what SEO tactic no longer works -- but some sort of notice would help. Clamming up (its response to Segal's queries for the NYT story was epically awful) will not quiet any worries out there.
But there's a simpler thing Google could to do end this debate. In most cases, pointing your browser to another search engine requires changing a single, simple setting. That's true in Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari (on the desktop and on the iPhone and iPad) and Google's own Chrome.
But Google's Android operating system does not provide that choice. Carriers can change what search site comes up when you press an Android phone's search button, but individual users can't. Allowing customers to link that button to Microsoft's Bing or another Google competitor would ensure that Android phones are no more stuck with Google search than any other browser.
I said as much to Cutts on Wednesday, and he replied that he personally would like to see Android work that way. It's not Cutts's call to make, but I hope he has a chat with Android's managers when he returns to Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
Meanwhile, what's your take on Google's search quality: Is the site is serving up too few of the right results or too many of the wrong ones? And if you could change your Android phone's default search site, which one would you chose?
| January 14, 2011; 12:32 PM ET
Categories: Net Neutrality, Policy and politics, Search
Save & Share: Previous: What has a decade of Wikipedia meant to you?
Next: Bank of America site suffers outage (updated with BofA response)
Posted by: ummhuh1 | January 14, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: carnegie0107 | January 14, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: manfromtallahassee | January 14, 2011 3:10 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: carnegie0107 | January 14, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: hysdav1d | January 14, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JJones-CapitalWeatherGang | January 14, 2011 7:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 7:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: steveanderson1357 | January 15, 2011 8:38 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: goldiegordon | January 16, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse