Don't Believe Everything You Read In The Paper

The New York Times recently published an op-ed piece entitled "The Google Algorithm," which detailed reasons why the company's growing influence should be subject to government review (rebutted by Google's Marissa Mayer in the Financial Times). Citing Google's incredible power over businesses and searchers, the Times piece proceeds to gnaw at Google's right to express an editorial and journalistic opinion at the keyword level, which would ultimately threaten the quality of the search experience.

Taking into consideration the incredible alignment of both Google's and the Times' editorial powers, the entire Times article is hypocritical on too many levels to mention in this column. In making the case for oversight, the piece leaves open many critical questions related to free speech, seeming to miss the point entirely that any algorithm that ranks documents and digital assets is inherently biased, and there are always limits to top results.

The New York Times should be protecting Google's right to free speech and press, not attempting to destroy it

Google's algorithm produces editorial-based results ("natural" or "organic" search) that are effectively machine-driven, but also ultimately devised by humans. Every result may be algorithmically driven, but it is still based on the human opinion and values of the people at Google who created it. People in the U.S. have the right to free speech and freedom of the press, and this includes the human-based establishment of parameters for search algorithms, in any way they so choose. Journalists know this fight all too well, as many have gone to jail, or have been killed in order to protect and exercise rights to free speech, and from revealing sources.



Practicing and advocating common sense marketing strategy: don't rely solely on Google

Relying solely on Google natural search traffic is bad strategy for most marketers (this coming from a longtime search strategist and evangelist)-- though clearly search marketing is an integral part of modern business strategy. But as a search marketer, I advocate for my clients, and the customer; I do not advocate for any particular search engine. If the search audience moves, I move to the engine that has the audience and delivers business value.

Today, Google dominates in search market share, and in much of the online landscape. If Google also dominates tomorrow, great. But if something happens to the core values provided to its users and the landscape begins to shift, then I will take my clients to the engine that delivers. Don't believe me? Just look at the Yahoo and Bing merger - a simple case of a giant folding, and another player emerging. So is it a case of too much power? Or is it bad marketing and business strategy to rely on a single engine as the core of online marketing strategies? Have you ever heard of the Google Florida update?

Spinning the term "net neutrality"

What I also find somewhat suspect is that this dialogue bastardizes the key buzzwords in the U.S. net neutrality debate, positing Google as the overlord of Internet influence with the power to make or break companies, and people.

Don't get confused into thinking that "net neutrality" and "search neutrality" are the same things. They are not. Net neutrality is about equal access for all on the open Internet, and Google is not the Internet. If we properly protect net neutrality and equal access, the Web could -- and would -- shift to the next best thing, in the event that Google became an overly bloated service that granted its authority on undeserving parties. Google knows that the integrity of its results is paramount to its success, and the power to shift to providers big and small is one of the powers of the open Web, and network neutrality.

Perhaps some search media awareness is in order for the average searcher

Average users have little understanding of how their results are delivered, but their trust in a search engine brand highly influences their choices. I know this from the firsthand education of thousands of people, even some media-savvy people, many of whom are unaware of the differences between sponsored and natural results. For this reason, I have long advocated more explanations from the search results page on how search results are delivered, both objectively and subjectively. In many cases, a simple link from the search results page outlining the basic inner workings of a search engine would do a lot in helping searchers think more critically about their results.

About two and a half years ago I wrote a column entitled "Deconstructing Search Engine Bias," which was designed to provide a basic education on SERP bias, and as a guide to basic critical assessment for users in search, in order to better filter their results. It contains a list of various types of bias that determine the results you see on a page, including both paid and natural search biases.

While a little more awareness from searchers should be enough to fix the Times' concerns that Google has gotten too powerful, they will know much more about the search process than how the Times comes up with its editorial positioning on various issues. Having the government step in will also do nothing to solve the search problems of businesses. And searchers should think more critically about their results, just as we all shouldn't believe everything we read in the paper.

8 comments about "Don't Believe Everything You Read In The Paper".
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  1. Jonathan Bernstein from Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., July 21, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

    Speaking of media ethics, or lack might like this article, published yesterday:

    or TinyURL:

  2. Amy Fanter from Odds On Promotions, July 21, 2010 at 3:57 p.m.

    Rob I was delighted to read your article. Thank you!

  3. Rob Garner from Author of "Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing Wiley/Sybex 2013, July 21, 2010 at 4:03 p.m.

    Thank you Amy.

  4. Digital Marketer from .., July 21, 2010 at 4:46 p.m.

    google presents customized SERP results based on the individual search patterns of each user, regardless of whether or not they have accounts or log in. the new york times prints the same ink in the same places for every reader. i might agree with the lager premise about google's enormous and unchecked influence, however isn't theirs by definition a less biased system than anything the NYT prints?

  5. Rob Garner from Author of "Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing Wiley/Sybex 2013, July 21, 2010 at 5:11 p.m.

    Evan - personalization is like a form of bias that leans towards the user's own bias, if you will. But Google is not the only entity to have a looming influence.

  6. Sue Sparks from Rightscom, July 22, 2010 at 7:02 a.m.

    Your article would have done better to consider the argument about Google's power on its merits, rather than attacking the NYT. The argument (which Google itself makes) that people are free to switch search engines tomorrow if they want to ignores a number of factors, notably that search as a platform for advertising has the characteristics of a 'winner takes all' market. See the work of David S Evans, for example It is too simplistic to engage in free speech rhetoric without also considering the long term implications of the dominance of a few giant corporations over the way people find information and communicate e.g. Facebook as well.

  7. Rob Garner from Author of "Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing Wiley/Sybex 2013, July 22, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.

    Hi Sue - If my title wasn't clear enough, I'll make it even more simplistic: The NYT piece has no merit whatsoever : )

  8. Sue Sparks from Rightscom, July 23, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    Hi Rob. I think you must realise I meant the argument that Google has too much power should be considered on its merits, regardless of who is advancing it or how the argument was put in one newspaper article. @ Michael - as for the NYT using Google itself - that only reinforces the argument that Google is the only (real) game in town. It's even more the case in Europe than in the US, where Google has recently been found by the European Commission to have '90-100%' (depending on the country) share of the market. That is an unhealthy dominance.

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