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Posted at 12:32 PM ET, 01/14/2011

The 'search neutrality' debate, and one way to end it: Give Android users a choice

By Rob Pegoraro

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?

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 14, 2011; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  Net Neutrality, Policy and politics, Search  
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By now, I thought searches on google who be much better, but it has gotten much worse. I hate “instant” and wish it wasn’t a default setting. (Yeah, I know I can login to my google account, but come on…). Most of the searches I conduct always seem to return results (pages) with dates from “a few years back.” Why doesn't the most recently dated pages appear first in a list? I don’t care about instant and thousands of results; I want to get results that meet my search criteria.

Posted by: ummhuh1 | January 14, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I have loved whatever my current Android device was since I got my G1 shortly after launch. I have no desire to change the default search engine, either. No matter how many promising new SEs I try, or how many cool features they have, nothing returns what I'm looking for as well as Google. I just wanted to say, users have been able to install alternative search engines and switch between them via a simple drop-down icon menu since Android 2.1 launched over a year ago. However, Microsoft and Yahoo have chosen to instead make stand-alone apps that do not incorporate into the search bar called by the hardware button. There are many, many search service apps that do, but they mostly search local files, or in some cases specific websites like Wikipedia. One certainly can't expect Google to write software for its competitors, when they won't write it themselves. The fact is, Google has given us the option, but nobody uses it.

I would chastise the writer for lack of research, but if Google's own Matt Cutts didn't know this, I can't very well expect every journalist to know it.

Posted by: carnegie0107 | January 14, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse

@carnegie0107: You're going to have to enlighten me on this one. I have an Android phone running 2.1--on which I have root access--and I can't find a drop-down menu or any other interface in the browser or the Settings app to change what site gets invoked by the search button. If there's some add-on app that does this, I have yet to find it (OpenSearch doesn't tie into the button either).

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

While you're at it, why don't you ask Verizon to provide Samsung Fascinate users with the same option of deleting Bing and installing Google as the default search engine?

Posted by: manfromtallahassee | January 14, 2011 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Apologies! I looked back at some old software, and turns out my memory failed me. It wasn't 2.1 that introduced this feature, but 2.2. I think, though, the latest Google Search app in the market adds this feature, and should be downloadable on 2.0 or higher. On the search app, just touch the Google icon and select from applications with search features. By default, Google, Maps, Apps, Contacts. But many more can be added: Music,, Wikipedia, IMDB... all of these are in my list. Like I said, though, no all-around search engine alternative to Google (Bing, Yahoo, etc.) have made plugins for this feature. The point is, they can.

Posted by: carnegie0107 | January 14, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse

@carnegie0107: Sorry, still striking out. A Droid 2 running 2.2 doesn't have any option, and the Google Search app doesn't present any way to add third-party search sites either. The only search prefs it presents dictate that sort of content on the phone can be searched; for example, "Amazon Kindle" is an unchecked option. It may be that search engines can tap into this feature, but I can't tell from the app's interface alone.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse

It's not that difficult Rob. For example, from the Android market, add the official IMDb app. Then from the dropdown menu, use the add searchable items icon at the right top. Put a checkmark in IMDb and you can search IMDb from the Google Search app.

Posted by: hysdav1d | January 14, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Rob, you've likely already reviewed an Android phone without the Goog, the Samsung Fascinate on Big Red, officially powered by Bing! This includes bing integration all through-out (even where you don't want it). And the best part? You don't have a choice to switch Bing out unless you root the phone. Big Red didn't want to provide it's users the choice (something about the 500 million dollar partnership likely has something to do with it). This is just as much about carriers (going back to the original idea of net neutrality) as it is the Google.

Fascinate review:

And one of a thousand posts about how to rid the phone of Bing:

Keep in mind bing lacked features such as driving navigation, voice search, etc. So if you were to use it, you couldn't just integrate bing search with google voice search with yahoo maps....

Is the issue more about people being afraid of the all powerful google and less that they actually want an alternative? I don't know if there is public clamor for different search on android phones if the reactions to phones with bing integration are any example.

I agree that Google's search results have been struggling as of late, but that doesn't have me throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Posted by: JJones-CapitalWeatherGang | January 14, 2011 7:07 PM | Report abuse

@hysdav1d: I did exactly that. But when you press the search button from the home screen, you're still sent to Google--even if you deselect Google and select only IMDb in the Google Search app.

I did, however, see that after installing the Bing on VZW app, I was given a choice of Bing or Google, and an option to stick with that choice in the future, when pressing the search button in the browser. So that's something.

But overall, I would say that all this is that difficult compared to the ease of telling an iPhone to use Bing or Yahoo instead of Google.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 14, 2011 7:37 PM | Report abuse

I think it's a bit much to expect to change the features of a hard button. Can you change "menu", or "home"? It's a google phone! The search button can search the web AND your phone (contacts, apps, everything). You can bookmark Bing or Yahoo and set a shortcut on the home screen for web search. There are search apps that I liked, Aurora was one, that you should try. I believe it also was universal search and it probably uses Google but I liked how it worked.

Posted by: steveanderson1357 | January 15, 2011 8:38 AM | Report abuse

One of the reasons I chose a Droid X over the iphone is Google voice search. I think Google search is superior to all. And the instant option is a time saver, if I don't like the results I can change my search term before the page is fully loaded. I don't understand a complaint about changing the setting - you just do it once. So no, I would have no use for an optional search default setting.

Posted by: goldiegordon | January 16, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

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