The Case for a Google Ombudsman

"Closing one's ears to the complaints of partisans would also entail closing one's mind to the substance of their arguments." -- Daniel Okrent, former ombudsman, New York Times.Google should hire an ombudsman. This is not a new idea. But given Google's recent problems in court, its page-ranking dalliance with a Moldavian

"Closing one's ears to the complaints of partisans would also entail closing one's mind to the substance of their arguments." -- Daniel Okrent, former ombudsman, New York Times.

Google should hire an ombudsman.

This is not a new idea. But given Google's recent problems in court, its page-ranking dalliance with a Moldavian hacker, and a report calling for third-party review of its click-based advertising programs, it may be time to revisit the proposition.

Because Google has become the de facto arbiter of information online, because Google publishes and changes information daily that affects the livelihood of thousands of businesses and individuals, and because there are no transparent forums for the redress of perceived wrongs, Google needs to demonstrate that it has its users' best interests at heart.

This isn't a legal argument, it's a moral one. And the invitation to that moral debate comes from Google's own oft-referenced motto: "Do no evil."

Why an ombudsman?
In the world of journalism, ombudsmen are hired by publications to do two basic things: listen to the readers and criticize the publication itself. In the 1970s, when columns by ombudsmen began to appear, newspapers were still increasing their circulation. They were perceived as the arbiters of fact. If members of the public had a complaint about coverage, they could speak with the ombudsman and he or she would work on the public's behalf, perhaps even publishing a record of the redress in the paper itself.

Today, Google is basically our paper of record. The search engine is responsible for about 60 percent of all queries online. It's also directly responsible for 25 percent of the projected $15.6 billion online ad market, and indirectly responsible for the viability of businesses that rely on Google ranking to achieve exposure. Google has not only made itself important, it has made itself indispensable.

But there's the problem. If Google changes the way its algorithms work and, say, your Web site is delisted, Google won't notify you. It also won't tell you how to get relisted. If you attempt to contact Google, representatives will likely refer you to its Webmaster guidelines. Not a problem for Joe Schmo. Big problem for anyone who runs a small business online.

Far from being simply an olive branch to a disgruntled public, hiring an ombudsman could actually have financial benefits for Google. In the long run, it could save Google money by keeping the company out of court. Google is currently being sued by because its page ranking fell by 70 percent, and its income from Google AdSense by 80 percent. Could that lawsuit have been avoided if Google had a public forum for the redress of perceived wrongs? Perhaps.

Reasons not to hire an ombudsman
But despite the feel-good proposition of a more open Google, I think there are two basic reasons why Google won't hire an ombudsman: stock price and infallibility.

One of an ombudsman's biggest roles is as self-critic. Essentially, an ombudsman bites the hand that feeds it (kinda like the Register). I imagine that even the most magnanimous CEOs don't cherish the idea of providing the blogosphere with ammunition. Especially not when there are investors to please.

And then there's the fallibility problem. Google hiring an ombudsman to admit and deal with errors is kind of like the pope issuing an ex cathedra teaching and then changing his mind. Popes are supposedly preserved from error when they declare decisions, so it's a big deal when one pope says a previous pope was wrong.

"It is this that makes the papal pretensions so extraordinary and so enormous," wrote Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians, explaining the the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. "It is also this that gives them their charm. Catholic apologists, when they try to tone down those pretensions and to explain them away, forget that it is in their very exorbitance that their fascination lies."

We are fascinated by Google. It has unimpeachable intentions but near-Orwellian power. On the Internet, it's the closest thing we have to a pope. The self-blinding grandeur of that privileged position is another reason why Google execs may blanch at the prospect of paying somebody to say, surprise, we make mistakes. Even more important: If Google were to admit that it made a coding error, or delisted a site by accident, the aggrieved party would then have proof of Google's negligence. In other words, an ombudsman could help Google shoot itself in the foot.

But if Google execs belive they can walk the accountability line and do decide that an ombudsman may serve them well, they have a precedent in the New York Times. The Grey Lady, after refusing to hire an ombudsman for 36 years, finally relented in 2003 after the Jayson Blair scandal.

While the comparison of Google to the Times isn't a perfect one, the search company can learn some lessons from the paper's decision to hire an ombudsman, and its decision to do it differently from competitors. Maybe baby steps are the way to go. The Times started with a one-year trial, just to see if an ombudsman would work for it.

Perhaps Google should start the same way.