The Federal Trade Commission said this week that it had cleared Google of violating antitrust laws by promoting its own services in the search results. That decision makes a huge amount of sense from a practical point of view, if only because no one needs government officials trying to regulate the proper placement of search engine results.
Just imagine what would happen if regulators required Google to return "relevant" results based on supposedly objective criteria. The very prospect raises a litany of absurd questions -- including how regulators would ever begin to evaluate relevance. Would they come up with a formula based on traffic? Click-throughs? Would they look at landing pages and rank them for keywords? And why would their judgment about relevance be superior to Google's anyway, given that Google is the one that stands to lose the most if Web users don't like its results?
Besides, the notion that search engines should be objective is questionable at best. As New York Law School professor James Grimmelmann argued: "Search is inherently subjective: it always involves guessing the diverse and unknown intentions of users."
He added: "A search for ‘apple’ could be looking for information about Fiji apples, Apple computers, or Fiona Apple... Different people will have different intentions in mind; even the same person will have different intentions at different times."
But Google's critics aren't willing to admit defeat on this issue. Several hours after the FTC decision, Microsoft vice president Dave Heiner blasted the agency on the company's blog. "Google has long said that it merely aims to offer customers the most relevant answer to their query, and the FTC Commissioners accepted that view," Heiner wrote. "Yet we know that Google routinely and systematically heavily promotes its own services in search results. Is Google+ really more relevant than Facebook? Are Google’s travel results better than those offered by Expedia, Kayak and others?
Heiner might think the answers to those questions are self-evident. In fact, they're anything but.