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Monday, July 28, 2003

Defending the Rights of Algorithm Designers, or "If You Don't Like it, Start Your Own Search Engine"

Sean Carton makes a good point in today's ClickZ column, a series of predictions about how the Internet landscape will unfold in the near future. He suggests that search engines are going to be overwhelmed with bureaucracy and regulation because they're becoming such an important public access point for information.

"At some point, someone's going to file a class action suit, or some legislator whose business got lousy rankings is going to say, "Hey! This isn't fair!" I don't know how attempts at regulation will pan out, but it's inevitable the government will try to get involved."

Sadly, he's right.

Shades of arguments we had with the likes of Gary Mosher, who no longer seems quite as wacky as we might have thought.

But the specter of legislators infringing on the editorial rights of the publishers of website rankings is too grim, ultimately, for us to even imagine taking something like this lying down. It's a real 1984 scenario. I know, I know, some are going to say it's Google, and not this hypothetical government agency, that has too much control over information. Maybe so, but so do the New York Times and Rupert Murdoch. Government regulates all media... to a point.

Ultimately, one supposes, it must come down to a question of what the law actually allows a publisher of listings or directories to do, and how many fetters can be placed on that. "Hard questions" (often completely uninformed questions) are being asked of search engines now, because they're the hot topic. But how often do you hear similar questions being raised about other listing formats, like yellow page directories? Like, is it really fair to list businesses in alphabetical order? What about the white pages? Is it fair that a single company or large public organization can list hundreds of numbers, taking up several pages? Of course no one asks these questions because the practicalities of helping users find what they need outweigh such nitpicking.

So at the end of the day, Carton (or at least his imagined litigators) are going to be proven quite wrong. Savvy users understand the implied pact here, which is "rankings of pages in Google are Google's opinion (driven by a proprietary ranking technology) of which pages are most relevant to the average user's query." A lot of people think Google's opinion is very often helpful to them, hence they continue to use the Google search tool. No one's holding a gun to their head. It's supply and demand.

Oddly, when you work through the logic of hypothetical "search rankings sour grapes litigators," the new advertising programs available on search engines like Google serve to head off the complaint that public access is being blocked by a quirk in a research tool designed by a herd of diabolical nerds. If you bid high enough, provided you meet editorial requirements and clickthrough rate thresholds, you can appear on the page for pretty much any keyword you choose. Yes, you appear as advertising, not a search result, but the point is, you're not completely shut out. You can pay for exposure without forcing Google to mess with their algorithm - parallel worlds appearing on the same page in front of the same user. The market at work, more or less. (What, hypothetical lawsuit-monger, you think the editorial process and the CTR cutoff are biased, too? Doesn't someone want to stand up and defend the right of the user to see something relevant? Someone other than 100 million actual users, that is?)

Sadly, Google may well have to chew up a bit of its IPO cash (now we start to see why a war chest is needed) in defending such principles. Imagine paying all those lawyers to duke it out only to come to the simple conclusion: "Hey, if you don't like it, study computer science at Stanford, Brown, or MIT, and start your own search engine. That's what we did."

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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