Google’s Search Engine Discriminates in Favor of New York Times — per Ken Auletta, “Googled” author

November 11, 2009

Google’s secret algorithm discriminates in favor of The New York Times per a Politico video interview with Ken Auletta, author of the new book: “Googled, the End of the World as We Know It.”

Mr. Auletta explains what he learned about Google’s secret search algorithm. It favors sites/results based on “wisdom of the crowds” (i.e. most traffic or links), but it also favors authoritative sites like the New York Times, because Google grants them extra ratings points that elevate them in Google’s search results.

  • Mr. Auletta goes on to defend Google for keeping the algorithm and the extra ratings points secret in order to prevent others from gaming the system.

This information that Google proactively and specifically discriminates in favor of certain content over other content is a big deal for several reasons.

First, Google has long represented that it is a neutral algorithm where Internet users determine what ranks highest in searches, or in other words what content gets found and read and what doesn’t.

  • Google’s corporate philosophy statement on its website says unequivocably: “We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results and no one can buy better PageRank. Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust.”
  • The FTC might want to consider if this is a deceptive practice or unfair representation to represent that rankings are never manipulated when they are indeed manipulated, if Mr. Auletta’s information is correct.

Second, Google claims to be a believer in “openness” and “transparency” to the point of pushing for FCC transparency mandates and for the Federal Government to be more transparent. However, Google won’t be transparent with the algorithm that almost a billion people rely upon to provide a neutral means to find the content of their choice, because the algorithm could be “gamed.”

  • What Google considers “gaming the system” is called open competition, user choice, marketing, and market forces.
  • At core, Google is saying that only Google should be trusted and able to decide what content is found, and that an open and transparent search algorithm can’t be trusted.

Third, add this latest development to the long case that Google is not neutral. (See my recent post: “Why Google is not Neutral.“)

  • Under the FCC’s existing net neutrality principles, users “are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.”

In sum, the big takeaway here is that Google’s algorithm is not based just on the wisdom of the crowds, but also Google’s own value judgements about the content. Google is on a slippery slope here. What is Google’s objective basis for ranking one content provider over another if it is not links, traffic or some other objective measure? And why in the spirit of openness and transparency shouldn’t users know what basis/values/biases Google uses to determine search results?

  • Given that Google has very well-known public policy views, is it not relevant to know if Google favors results that support and advance their public policy positions or if Google discriminates against views it disagrees with and “moves them to the back of the arena” as Google’s Senior VP Jonathan Rosenberg all but admitted in February in a Google blogpost?



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