Google has spent years developing and honing their search engine algorithm to bring people the most relevant information on the web. And these efforts have been well rewarded. The name Google is now synonymous with internet-based searches, with the transitive verb “to google” now officially part of the Oxford English Dictionary. Most of us probably think of search engines as pragmatic tools which we use on a daily basis, but the fact of the matter is that search engines are a lucrative business, and Google is dominating the market with almost two-thirds of all internet searches.
In the past week—beginning with an editorial in the New York Times—there has been much debate as to whether or not the government should provide some sort of regulation over search engines. The article in the Times points out that when Google started they were a purely informational resource, providing an objective view of the web’s most relevant sites. Over the years, however, Google’s enterprises have expanded vastly, with maps, shopping, paid advertisements, email and litanies of other auxiliary projects. While business expansion is obviously a good thing, Google now has an incentive to promote their services above their competitors—which is a definite conflict of interest when, ostensibly, you’re managing an objective site.
Typically, companies like Google would be forced to provide a better service than their competitors, such as Yahoo! and Bing. But since Google has such an immense market share and is the de facto search engine for virtually everyone, there is little pressure from the competition that would force Google to change any of their practices.
Google is currently under investigation in Europe for breaching antitrust regulations, and the company expects similar inquiry in the US following their acquisition of ITA, a flight information software firm. You may be wondering on what grounds the government would have the authority to regulate Google and other search engines. The answer is quite simple: Google drives the internet economy. Being ranked highly in Google’s organic listings means real dollars for companies, so if Google unfairly ranks their own material—or that of other companies—it can mean substantial financial losses for businesses.
Of course, the challenge to any regulation is how to do it fairly and objectively, which is particularly challenging when dealing with proprietary information like an algorithm and the vastness of the internet. Marissa Mayer, the VP of Search Product and User Experience, was quick this out in the company’s response to the Times’ editorial. Here are a few of her key points:
~How will the government decide if search results are “fair”?
~Regulation prohibits competition and experimentation, which in turn prohibits growth and innovation.
~If search engines have to disclose their proprietary algorithms, it will be easier for people to manipulate the system.
~Regulation will make results from all search engines standardized, decreasing the amount of competition and further stifling innovation.
With the arcane nature of internet regulation, if the government ever does take action it will likely be years away. In the meantime, it’s important to realize that Google and other search engines aren’t a divine authority and to use discretion when searching; just because something shows up at the top of page one doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best.