Does Senator Franken -- And The FTC -- Really Want To Regulate Google Algorithms?

On Sept. 21, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights held a hearing on whether or not Google is “serving customers or threatening competition.”  The questioning honed in on 1) whether or not Google is “biased”; 2) whether Google has been favoring its own properties; and 3) possible regulation of search results, among many other questions.  I will take a deeper dive into a few of the items above, as the hearing was often meandering and unfocused in terms of its stated objectives. 

Is Google biased? 

I’ll give you the short answer:  Yes. All search engines are biased, and if they weren’t, search engines would not exist at all.  With search engines, bias is a good thing, and searchers use the search engine with the best bias, relative to their search intentions.   Natural search is editorial, whether delivered by an algorithm, human editing, or both (even algorithms are developed by humans, and therefore have a built-in bias).   Search editorial is commercial free speech, no different from any other company publishing a popularity list, a “best of guide,” or other list that infers some type of quality judgment or comparison.  For these reasons alone, the investigators are asking for an answer to a question that does not make sense.



A few years ago, I wrote a column explaining the basic biases of search engines so that searchers would be able to think critically about their listings (the article also included a link to an excellent paper written by Eric Goldman on objective search engine bias, and why it is a good thing).  That column was written about three-and-a-half years ago, and of course many other biases could be added to that list now, but it is still a good basic overview.  All in all, bias is what makes your search engine results great. 

Ultimately, bias is used to give you an answer.  This leaning toward more robust artificial intelligence has long been a stated goal by key Google strategists.  So any focus on the “ten blue links” is a throwback to search engines of five to ten years ago, and will hinder any type of innovation.  Search engines are moving into the physical world as well, and search bias, just like human bias, is and should be a part of it.

Is Google properly managing the algorithm for its users?

Paid and natural results have always been consistently managed like “church and state,” with objective natural search results bordering on tech religion at Google.   As far as Google is concerned, only the best answer for the user will do, period.  No compromises; spammers and irrelevant results are kicked out. 

This approach is comprised of both technological and human editorial.  There is only one number one, and for every number one, there are a million or more rankings standing in line.  Commitment to search quality and its user experience are the essence of the engine's entire business (and also where the company makes the most money).  If bad search experiences were consistent, then fickle searchers would move en masse to the next best thing. 

There is no fairness in search, so businesses should get used to it.  There are strategies for getting the most out of an Internet marketing strategy, and search is only one part of it.  The fact that some of the businesses testifying at the hearing are apparently relying dominantly on Google natural results indicates a severe and potentially critical flaw in their business strategy.  I remember the Google Florida update of 2003 (when Google wiped out natural rankings and traffic for a massive number of site owners), and the toll it took on individuals and businesses who had put all their eggs in the Google natural search basket.  As a strategist, I would never recommend implementing only a pure natural search strategy to any company I advise -- that is, if they plan on being around for a while.  

Does the U. S. government believe it should get into the search engine censorship business?

The most alarming comment to me came from Senator Al Franken of Minnesota.  Sen. Franken is currently working with Google, and in his remarks leading up to the verbal thrashing he gave Eric Schmidt, he suggestedthat the “technical oversight committee” could regulate and approve every algorithm change, as a solution to this perceived problem. 

First of all, I strongly support Sen. Franken on his net neutrality stance (see my previous column, “Google’s Shocking Change of Heart on Net Neutrality”).  Partisan politics aside, Franken was one of the only politicians who knowledgeably stood up for neutrality, and also worked to mobilize support for the issue.   If you support equal network access issues, then I would recommend you support Sen. Franken, because he is one of the leading thinkers in this cause, one that he rightly called “the most important free speech issue of our time.”

Maybe Sen. Franken realizes the impossibility of his regulation statement in terms of it being at odds with his free-speech stance.  I would make the case that the right to create an algorithm is also a free-speech issue, right up there with the free speech rights of equal network access.   Imagine if it was suggested that every New York Times article was approved by an oversight committee.  Imagine if every magazine cover was approved by an oversight committee.  Imagine if eBay, Amazon, Bing, and Yahoo Rankings were subject to government oversight, because people were not happy with their rankings.  It just wouldn’t fly. 

Yes, Google does wield a tremendous amount of power.  Yes, there is only one #1 result.  Yes, some marketers have highly flawed business strategies that rely on Google natural search results exclusively.  Yes, Google and all search engines are biased by design.  Government regulation of an algorithm will not change any of this.

5 comments about "Does Senator Franken -- And The FTC -- Really Want To Regulate Google Algorithms? ".
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  1. Jon Mensing from Search Marketing Solutions, October 12, 2011 at 2:03 p.m.

    Regardless of the logic behind implementation, the clear answer is "Yes, Sen. Franken wants that kind of control". Of course, my opinion is biased and it is a result of an attitude that most elected officials run for office because, in their opinion, they know what's best for you, freedom be damned.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 12, 2011 at 2:03 p.m.

    Wouldn't it be interesting for you and Senator Franken to sit down and discuss this ? You may find better alternatives.

  3. Pamela Horovitz from Internet Video Archive, October 12, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.

    Rob, I think everyone understands and is willing to work within the idea that every search engine comes with bias. The problem occurs when the search result favors products and services that are owned by Google. That in effect is Google saying that they KNOW their offering is better than any competitors. Doesn't seem quite fair. Having the government step in won't work, but Franken is right to lean on Schmidt, and Schmidt was very disingenuous in his responses.

  4. Rob Garner from Author of "Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing Wiley/Sybex 2013, October 12, 2011 at 3:34 p.m.

    Thank you all for the comments.

    Pamela - by listing and ranking web sites in an ordered list, Google is already inferring that they *know* one web site is better than another. That is why you use them in the first place. If they say their own sites are better and it turns out they are highly irrelevant, then the market will decide that the methodology is no good, and go elsewhere. Remember, it is very difficult to predict search intention, but in my experience, and top Google placements are highly relevant. Like Google Maps, News, and Package Tracking for instance.

    I don't necessarily agree that Schmidt was disingenuous in his responses. He was asked a major question that was fundamentally flawed.

  5. Warren Lee from SEO-CUBED.COM, October 13, 2011 at 12:22 a.m.

    I'd agree with Pamela up until the last two sentences in her comment. But I also don't even really see that it's a huge problem even if Google favors their own websites a little. So what! Google should be able to decide what websites they chose to show or not to show. I do not believe Google should be this controlled by the government for many reasons the least of which is that the end of the day the fact is that any bias towards Google properties within Googles own natural results is inherently unsustainable. In this case if the right balance between government and freedom is equitable then Franken and Schmidt really should not waste their time with this issue. Their time could be better spent on other issues. I don't know whether or not Schmidt was being disingenuous, but if he was perhaps a little i'd say perhaps it was rightly so!

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