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  • Is Google Evil?
    Posted by Andrew Compart 11:30 PM on Nov 12, 2010

    As I reported earlier this month, a new lobbying coalition that includes Expedia, Sabre Holdings, Kayak and Farelogix has been created to oppose Google's proposed $700 million acquisiton of ITA Software, the flight search engine behind many of the Internet's most popular travel sites . The coalition argues that the proposed deal would give the search engine giant control over the software that powers most of its closest rivals in travel search and allow Google to manipulate the online air travel marketplace. At the core of its argument, however, is the notion that the rise in Google's size and influence has sinister implications and that its founders have some bad intentions.

    The coalition’s website touches on such fears with an ominous slide show about what it labels the “Google problem.”  I note this because in this slide show about the "Google problem" the coalition quotes from an academic paper co-written by Standford University students Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page in 1998. They were writing about their prototype search engine, Google, and mentioned  concerns about the future of search engines in that context.

    The selected quotes in the slide show sound ominous. in that Brin and Page predict that advertising-funded search engines will be "inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers" and that search engine bias is "particularly insidious." They also talk about how a search engine could skew results to "have a significant effect on the market."

    Reading the actual academic paper, with the quotes in context, is not quite as ominous. Here's the section from which those quotes were drawn.

    Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is "The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention," a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media, we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

    Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. A good example was OpenText, which was reported to be selling companies the right to be listed at the top of the search results for particular queries. This type of bias is much more insidious than advertising, because it is not clear who "deserves" to be there, and who is willing to pay money to be listed. This business model resulted in an uproar, and OpenText has ceased to be a viable search engine. But less blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market. For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from "friendly" companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline's homepage when the airline's name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.

    In this context, it is clear that Brin and Page are not talking about what they envision for Google, but the flaws and dangers they saw in the other existing search engines at the time. The question, of course, is how far they have strayed from their original version and become what they warned against. Google does take advertising now, but lists those results separately on the side, labeled as ads.

    The slide show goes on to use more recent quotes, such as how Google is secretive about how exactly it comes up with its rankings. The counterargument to this as being sinister, however, is that there is good reason not to be fully transparent: many companies try to game the rankings system to get a high listing they might not subjectively merit.

    The slide show also quotes Google's CEO as saying, "We know where you are. We know what you like." This sounds very Big Brotherish, but it actually is what a lot of websites try to do (and, by the way, the direction in which airlines are heading, too). If Amazon does not know what you like, how do you think it is able to suggest books, videos and other items you might want, based on what you have purchased or considered in the past? Netflix does it, too, and many others. So-called database-driven marketing is a very big thing in retailing these days. Google, of course, can do this on a larger scale, because users search for so many things via their site (and also use its gmail service, etc.). But it is hardly unique. And everyone is on the location-based marketing bandwagon now, because if you have a GPS-enabled smartphone, it's not difficult to know where you are and market to you based on your location.

    I'm not taking a position here on whether Google's acquisition of ITA would be a good thing. I'm just saying perhaps this argument can be made without trying to make Google sound so sinister.

    Tags: tw99, google, ITA, Expedia, Sabre

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