Is Google Biased? Sure It Is. But Good Luck Proving It

One Company's Algorithms Determine Winners and Losers on the Web, but Don't Expect the Feds to Worry

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Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
Search bias. Search neutrality. Search integrity. The debate over bias in search results has never been hotter. Is Google's ranking system corrupt in favor of its own properties? Maybe, but the task of proving that is a cast-iron bitch and it should be least of your concerns.

In the last few weeks, an ongoing investigation into Google's practices by the European Union and, at home, by the Federal Trade Commission has had the searcharati buzzing. As Google went to Washington in an effort to explain its lack of bias, a survey surfaced announcing that Americans oppose government regulation of search engines and another "study" was released attempting to prove Google's bias.

It's a fine mess we are in. The answers won't come easy but clearly something has to change. Now that the CEO father figure is on the way out and the kids are back in charge, maybe it will.

Infinitely complex
Search algorithms are complex. Very few people understand them and even fewer can decode them. Remember all the publicity Google got with its complicated math problem recruitment billboards? The answer to Google's question on the 2004 billboard was You're welcome.

Elitist hiring practices may have led to a genius monoculture but as I've said many times, many ways over the last many years: No one understands how it works and only one private entity dominates and controls it. Said entity can change the rules anytime it wants and decides what is right and wrong. That, my friends, is at the heart of the problem.

Without question, search has become the ubiquitous connector -- for every human accessing content -- in the connected world. Does Google have an obligation to maintain its genuineness? Well, it definitely has an obligation to its shareholders -- an obligation that time and time again sends social obligation and consciousness to the back seat.

War of the surveys
I'd like to offer an opinion on a recent Rasmussen survey with the headline "Most Say No to Government Regulation of Search Engines." Leaving aside the utter insanity and useless nature of surveys in general, only 740 internet users were surveyed. More than double that number follow me on Twitter -- and that's not saying much. 77% said there is no need for government regulation. Missing from the survey were questions like "Do you know what an algorithm is," or more to the point, "What is the difference between a link that says 'sponsored' and one that doesn't."

Another study availed itself arguing the other side of the equation. Ben Edelman's "Measuring Bias in 'Organic' Web Search" explores a sample of searches that appear to show bias. Depending on how you spin it, almost any data can prove a point; it just depends on which point you are trying to make.

To bias or not to
Rasmussen's survey reminds me of the pre-holiday CBS news poll that announced four out five Americans supported the use of full-body scans. Sure they do. Zero out of those five were white collar ditch diggers like me whose mortgage-paying ability is dependent upon getting some combination of radiated or groped a dozen times a month.

Edelman and Rasmussen's research may very well be valid, but Google's bias or lack thereof shouldn't be left in the hands of inevitably corrupt or biased politicians, the guy who worked for a competitor, the one who runs a search marketing company, the one who writes for an industry trade or the guy trying to sell the book, but we seem to be the only ones making noise about the issues.

In the all-consuming, all-documenting obsessed world, you can find bias anywhere. Seems its getting easier and easier to discredit almost anyone for anything -- just Google the party in question. Maybe Google is a discrediting enabling technology. I bet I could pull together a survey to support my predetermined conclusion.

Independent bodies
I'm encouraged to see Google marching on Washington as we saw in Google guru Matt Cutt's presentation to the Federal Trade Commission. While we are on the subject, why isn't Google's presentation available to the public? Does it contain trade secrets? One has to wonder.

Of course, this isn't the first time Google has made moves on Capitol Hill. Consider then-CEO Eric Schmidt's appearance on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama's election video. Naturally, a small disclaimer below Mr. Schmidt's title as head honcho let everyone know this wasn't a Google endorsement. Right. And I'm jolly old Saint Nick.

Google never really answered for its sweetheart deal to park what Schmidt called the founder's "party airplane" at NASA's Moffet Federal Air Field. Let's face it, if you're the leader of the free world and you are popping in for a $30,000-a-plate dinner at a Google honcho's home (as President Obama did last October), what better place to park Air Force One than right next to the Google party jet.

I'd go on, but there's really no need. Just do a search for "Google+Barack Obama" and read on for yourself. It makes sense, doesn't it?

Just one chance
Over the years, I've watched as the practice of search has evolved and devolved. In the beginning there were hundreds of search sites and relatively little content. Today, there's a ton of content and only a few search sites -- from the audience perspective.

Google has been setting the stage for avoiding a Ma Bell-style break-up for some time. Simply releasing the criteria for top rankings is unthinkable because the potential for abuse is too much for techno-miscreants to resist.

Yet, becoming search savvy for anyone who hopes to push content or generate any sort of commerce hasn't been a "nice to have" for some time. Without a presence in search results, your business, nonprofit or news outlet is dead in the water.

With all the data bantering back and forth, you don't have to work too hard to prove one very valid, very plain and easy to draw conclusion: If you have the money to engage in search engine optimization practices, you have an advantage over those who don't. It doesn't get any simpler than that. At the moment, one company dominates the decision-making process.

Case for oversight
Add together the politics, secretive nature, government deals and near total market dominance and there should be no doubt why there's a need for change.

In the end, it seems like we are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Rasmussen's brief on the search report indicated that voters are afraid that internet regulation would become a tool for pushing political agendas. It's too late for that folks.

The ever growing library of writers who have found joy in adorning their book covers in the Google color scheme only emphasize the worldwide love affair with a great company. Not the least of which is Jeff Jarvis' "What would Google Do?" in which Jarvis explored the idea of Google disciplines applied to government.

We can choose to use fear as a motivator for keeping oversight away from the search or we can go another direction. Just how hard would it be to find a group of people who aren't afraid of upsetting Google and have no interest in its success or failure?

Is it possible to form an independent body to oversee search algorithms and business practices? I'm sure it would cost less than maintaining a jet at Moffet Field. Sure, Google is already subject to government laws, but these laws don't seem to relate to or understand search.

If we want to avoid the inevitable mess that would be created by government control, why not appoint an independent oversight group? If there's any truth to Javis' government-to-Google analysis, today's world already has its executive and judicial but we're sorely lacking in the legislative branch.

Kevin M. Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting and project management firm Motivity Marketing. He tweets at @KevinMRyan.
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