In search of Google’s dark side

January 4, 2013

The Federal Trade Commission Thursday dropped a two-year investigation into allegations that Google was gaming search results to drive traffic to its own sites. In a press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz allowed that the charges came from a staggering number of Google’s competitors, and at face value they are plausible: Google essentially controls search with something like 70 percent of the market share and, like any company with near monopoly power, might be tempted to use that advantage to slyly divert traffic away from competitors. But in a unanimous vote all five FTC commissioners agreed there was nothing to see here.

Allegations of search bias strike at the heart of what Google purports to be: an honest curator of what’s available on the web. If the FTC ruled that Google was even a little dishonest, it could have altered the public perception of the company. It might have even been something akin to an Arthur Andersen moment.

The ruling could conceivably embolden Google to push the envelope. And it certainly makes it tougher for competitors to weaken the search giant on penalties rather than fight on what the FTC has now declared is a level playing field.

But the ruling really could not have gone any other way — not only because there’s scant evidence to support Google chicanery but because the idea that Google would use its advantage so heavy-handedly just doesn’t bear up under any scrutiny.

Google, unlike some other tech companies, doesn’t thrive by luring customers into a trap in a walled garden. Its business depends on the web being a vast meadow, infinite in all directions. Google’s properties aren’t revenue plays but building blocks intended to create something quite unusual: A company that you utterly depend on but can live without, and walk away from anytime whole.

To accept that Google would mess around with search for some marginal gain means accepting that it’s interested in the short money that comes from daily deals, Zagat reviews, YouTube ads and the like instead of the big money of being the first word in search.

It’s not as if Google has a history of “get out of jail free” passes from an indifferent or feckless FTC. The agency last year extracted token fines after finding that Google intentionally bypassed privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser. Two years ago it found that Google had used “deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises” with the rollout of (ultimately-doomed) social network Buzz when most tech writers thought the FTC was making a mountain out of a molehill. No fine that time, but Google was put on what amounts to 20 years of probation.

Every company does evil, to some degree, even one whose unofficial (and easily mocked) mantra is Don’t Be Evil. Business is business, after all. Indeed, the FTC did extract one concession from Google on a separate matter: The company agreed to license patents from newly-acquired Motorola Mobility on reasonable terms.

But a dark side to Google’s premiere product, search, would be a whole ‘nother smoke. Whatever services Google also provides — maps, restaurant recommendations, local information, daily deals — its core business depends on being a reliable gateway to the entire web. And the bigger the better.

While it might have a commanding lead, Google is hardly the only search engine. A pattern of results at odds with what Bing and Yahoo and a host of smaller players yield could not possibly escape notice. Google’s detractors, private watchdogs and the tech press will certainly continue to be on the lookout for Google shenanigans.

And anybody can do it. If you search Google for “maps,” Google Maps is first. But search Google for a street address and you’re just as likely to be directed to AOL’s MapQuest. Search “stocks” and Yahoo Finance is higher than Google’s site. Search a stock symbol — like “FB” — and you get a quote and a chart and even-handed links to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s finance sites.

How Google’s algorithm works is a secret, of course, but Google insists the calculation is based on what amount to citations — how many independent links there are to one site versus another. Its leadership role — and entire business — depends on that. To favor its products over another threatens all of its products. Favoritism, at least in theory, has no place in Google’s bucolic meadow.

PHOTO: REUTERS/Mark Blinch

4 comments

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As an advertiser with Google for many years, I’ve noticed the following:
1. Google’s search results are often so irrelevant and blatantly tweaked by search engine optimization (SEO) and Google’s own shenanigans that it’s clear that the search algorithm producing them has become outdated and dysfunctional. Years ago, that algorithm may have sounded like a good idea in an ideal Internet world viewed from a computers lab in Princeton, but today it’s failing in the real world.
2. Google is a rapacious and arrogant company. “Do no evil”? – Forget about it. Google tries to make money any way it can, whether it’s ethical or not. I’ve rarely seen a company that’s so disinterested in what its customers think about it. Google would never apologize or admit a mistake, although their technology is far from being perfect, and their attitude far from being fair. If Google wasn’t a monopoly in web search I would have stopped advertising with them years ago.
3. Last but not least: Google doesn’t care too much about the Internet experience of the common person. This is their main weakness, and that’s where they’re going to get hit, eventually.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

wow! kool-aide anyone?

Posted by daylyte | Report as abusive

Google searches are rigged, everyone knows that. The searches shut out the little guys in favor or the big boys who pay big money for search position. Tricks are also used to take you to web sites that do not even sell what you want, even though the search result showed they do have exactly what you want.
But when you have as much money and power as Google, and so many wealthy investors have money tied up in you, you can do as you please and no one will touch you.
It’s anarchistic capitalism at its best.
It is up to web users to stop using google and show we are not fools or suckers.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

@americanguy, not every search term is game for the “big boys.” Search terms such as “airplane tickets” might be a hotly contested space but there is much, much more information in the world, discoverable via Google, than the limited world of commerce implies.

However the “tricks” you speak of are a real problem, though not for the reasons you suggest. Search results for many terms are clogged with spam. Google does not take money for these results, and in fact, they tweak their algorithms to fight back against this manipulation. When people can’t find what they’re looking for, it reflects badly on the company. However, these types of worthless results are generally only a problem if you use generic queries. Searching for “shoes” or “clothes” on Google is pointless. You have to search with some degree of specificity, you have to have a good idea of what you’re looking for.

So you can stop using Google if you’d like but AOL, Yahoo, Bing, and every other alternative search engine is mst likely engaged in questionable tactics as well. They are public companies, not public utilities, and they have a responsibility to investors and shareholders to turn a profit.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive