Google handles nearly two-thirds of Internet search queries worldwide. Analysts reckon that most Web sites rely on the search engine for half of their traffic. When Google engineers tweak its supersecret algorithm — as they do hundreds of times a year — they can break the business of a Web site that is pushed down the rankings.
When Google was a pure search engine, it was easy to appear agnostic about search results, with no reason to play favorites with one Web site or another. But as Google has branched out into online services from maps and videos to comparison shopping, it has acquired pecuniary incentives to favor its own over rivals.
Google argues that its behavior is kept in check by competitors like Yahoo or Bing. But Google has become the default search engine for many Internet users. Competitors are a click away, but a case is building for some sort of oversight of the gatekeeper of the Internet.
In the past few months, Google has come under investigation by antitrust regulators in Europe. Rivals have accused Google of placing the Web sites of affiliates like Google Maps or YouTube at the top of Internet searches and relegating competitors to obscurity down the list. In the United States, Google said it expects antitrust regulators to scrutinize its $700 million purchase of the flight information software firm ITA, with which it plans to enter the online travel search market occupied by Expedia, Orbitz, Bing and others.
The accusations in Europe may or may not have merit. Google says it only tweaks its algorithm to improve its searches. Some Web sites that have accused Google of unfair placing are merely collections of links with next to no original content of their own, precisely the kind of sites that Google’s search algorithm screens out to better answer queries. Antitrust regulators in the United States could well let Google buy ITA because it does not now provide online travel services.
Still, the potential impact of Google’s algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses.
Some early suggestions for how to accomplish this include having Google explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its tweaks. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those tweaks.
Google provides an incredibly valuable service, and the government must be careful not to stifle its ability to innovate. Forcing it to publish the algorithm or the method it uses to evaluate it would allow every Web site to game the rules in order to climb up the rankings — destroying its value as a search engine. Requiring each algorithm tweak to be approved by regulators could drastically slow down its improvements. Forbidding Google to favor its own services — such as when it offers a Google Map to queries about addresses — might reduce the value of its searches.
With these caveats in mind, if Google is to continue to be the main map to the information highway, it concerns us all that it leads us fairly to where we want to go.