Google’s spam fight may bring added bonus

March 2, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Robert Cyran

Google’s tweaks of its search algorithms to reduce low-quality links will make the site’s users happier. That in turn should help maximize the company’s long-term value. But the technology update may also bring an added, less obvious, benefit. It should shore up Google’s legal defenses against antitrust regulators.

Efforts to game search engines range from benign, such as emphasizing certain words, to malign, such as paying for links to other sites. And the payoff for those who can make the most of Google’s system is large because of how much traffic the site generates. Appearing on the first page of results rather than the fifteenth is valuable to retailers and Viagra peddlers alike.

Google admits the quality of its search results suffered a drop late last year. Moreover, there has been a rise in “content farms” such as Demand Media and Yahoo’s Associated Content that produce scads of mediocre articles optimized for search engines. So Google has cranked up its weeding efforts. Last week’s adjustments significantly affected about 12 percent of queries.

This reduction in search pollution may appease regulators as much as Google users. The European Commission is now investigating whether the company has violated competition rules by lowering the ranking of rival services in areas such as price comparison to favor its own offerings. Meanwhile, a group of American travel-related sites is seeking to block Google’s acquisition of ITA Software on similar grounds.

One suggested remedy is “search neutrality,” or forcing Google to present search results impartially. This may sound good in theory. Google’s proprietary algorithms enable it to rig the system in its favor. But how neutrality can be ensured remains unclear. Prying open Google’s black box would allow search spammers free rein to run amok. How to treat those who game the system without running afoul of neutrality presents a quandary.

Instead, the best defense against government intrusion is to give Google users the best experience possible. Antitrust watchdogs on both sides of the Atlantic carefully weigh harm to consumers. The less manipulated and more useful Google’s results are, the harder it will be for regulators to make a case to intervene.

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