Why Google Musn't Let the Government Peek Under Its Hood

 
 
By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-07-19 Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Can you imagine the reaction Google's leadership had behind closed doors to the New York Times' editorial that suggested the company let the government take a peek under its hood? It really is a "when hell freezes over proposition."

The venerable Times suggested, among other things, Google let the government check to see whether the search engine algorithm tweaks are benefiting Google's other businesses:

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.

In other words, the Times wants the world to see what the wizard is doing behind the curtain. Many of my peers and colleagues feel the Times is out of line here, but I commend the publication's curiosity. They, just like me and every other high-tech journalist, simply want to know what's in Google's secret search sauce.

It's not unlike sampling an exquisite barbecue sauce and wondering what that ingredient is that makes it taste so darn good. Chefs rarely like to share.

But here is what the Times failed to consider (or didn't care to mention) in its appraisal: If the government were to get under Google's search hood, it could be big trouble because the government can't be trusted when it concerns Google.

The government is listening to Microsoft and other rivals gunning for Google and is leading a witch hunt not seen since, well, the one that burned Microsoft a decade ago. More on this later, but first some background.

Here's the rub: Google is notoriously and infamously secretive about the hundreds of changes it makes each year to its search algorithm.

The company has expanded its search and Web services offerings to several other areas -- Maps, Buzz, YouTube -- and surfaces those items as part of its universal search experience for its general Web search engine.

Smaller companies such as Foundem feel betrayed by Google, as the reigning search champion with 66 percent market share in the United States and more abroad.

Foundem and others argue Google is downplaying its product results and promoting its own.

The claim is that Google's search engine is no longer objective and that Google would rather push users to Google Product Search or other Google properties than Foundem, Microsoft Ciao for Bing or anything else.

Another great example: Google just bid to buy ITA Software, which would provide it with flight info that fuels most of the online travel industry's (and Microsoft Bing Travel's) listings.

Google is, in effect, cutting out the middleman by becoming the middleman on its own search engine.

Google wants as many people as possible to use its Web services. These services would get more search traffic and therefore expose more users to its ads if the services were ranked higher in results.

This is a big no-no in the SEO (search engine optimization) community, which, ironically enough, tries to game Google for better placement. Foundem and others are, in effect, accusing Google of gaming Google to boost Google's bottom line.

That is the sort of fodder antitrust experts such as Gary Reback, who took down the mighty Microsoft last decade, and regulators such as the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, are dying to use as firepower in building a case against Google.

Reback is rumored to have toured Capitol Hill with Foundem's founders to teach politicians about Google's evil ways. That's ominous if true.

We already know Microsoft is lurking here in the background after it admitted telling the DOJ how Google is unfairly abusing the search market.

If the DOJ, FTC or God knows what regulator asks for a tour of Google's algorithmic software, they would have major Google rival Microsoft there to consult and find any wrongdoing.

The regulators would talk all they want about using third parties to determine any foul play in Google's search, but if I'm the DOJ or FTC I want search experts in the market to diagnose any damaging works. Who's handy? Microsoft's Bing team.

If Google is screwing over rivals in the market with its search engine, than the next point is moot. But if it has done nothing legally wrong, letting anyone see it's search tweaks and how they are done could cause irreparable damage to the search engine Google has striven so hard to protect in the last 11 years.

Microsoft would get access to Google's crown jewels, which would be a major competitive boost for the company as it tries to ascend to capture Google's search crown. That's the main reason I'd be scared to let the government see my inner works if I'm Google.

I just have this sinking feeling the government is actively and quietly working with Microsoft to build a case against Google, using Microsoft's own expertise in search. The DOJ and FTC could leverage Microsoft's market knowledge base to build its case.

I don't trust the government regarding Google. Regulators have sought to thwart Google's Web advances (to keep Google from becoming the Microsoft of the Internet, no less) in book search and mobile advertising. The FTC's embarrassing failure to stymie Google's bid for AdMob is a classic example.

Here's the thing, though: The government has all the clout in the law on its side. When leaders of industry get together to do something big, it sometimes leads to collusion.

If the government gets together with Reback, Foundem and Microsoft and sniffs out improprieties at Google, it will be viewed as justice served.

Sorry, that's a witch hunt to me. All the more reason for Google to keep the government from seeing its crown jewels, despite the Times' naive suggestion.

But, again, if it's proven Google is doing some sneaky things with its algorithm to boost its other services, then the point is moot. They will get raked over the coals around the world. Deservedly so.

 
 
 
 
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