Monday, January 30, 2012

Is Google turning evil?

Google recently announced that they will be using information from all their applications when ranking search results. (Google lists 35 data sources on their privacy page).

Their corporate motto is "don't be evil." Is Google becoming a bit evil?

When Google started, their page ranking algorithm was based on the number of links to a page. The reasoning was that a page many people linked to was more important than one with few incoming links.

Link count was the first indicator of the importance of a page, but over time, Google, and other search engines, has added ranking signals like the information in your Google profile, your language, location, previous searches, friend's "Plus 1" votes, Gmail messages, calendar entries and more. (The details of the Google search ranking algorithm are a closely guarded secret and it is frequently changed).

Google personalizes search results using these signals. You and I might get different results from the same search terms, and Google will be able to predict whether the "beetle" you are searching for is more likely to be a car or a bug. Privacy advocates are upset because Google uses information from your prior searches, location and language even if you are not logged in. Some also feel this new policy is a unilateral change in Google's terms of service.

Other critics, like Eli Pariser, argue that personalized search narrows our view of the world, creating a "filter bubble."

Google answers these critics in the following video, saying that personalized search results provide more relevant information for users:

Google has also begun promoting their own content in ranking search results. For example, I just did a Google search for Facebook founder "Mark Zuckerberg." The first result was a link to his Google Plus page, which has no posts. That was followed by images of him and a Web post about a fake Mark Zuckerberg. I had to scroll down to the second screen to see a link to his Facebook page. If I search on my own name, I am taken to my Google Plus profile, not my home page on the Web.

Google supporters point out that favoring their own content is reasonable, drawing an analogy to print publications. No one complains that we cannot see articles from the Los Angles Times sports section while reading the New York Times.

But, The Times could not do that even if they wished to, and it is easy to do on the Web. More important, Google has a conflict of interest. Unlike the New York Times, they are in the search business as well as the content business. Google runs the risk of losing brand credibility as a search engine if they start over-ranking their content. They will seem a bit greedy and evil.

And what of the future? Does Google favor YouTube videos over others? Even if they don't today, might they tomorrow?

I don't mind Google personalizing my searches, but they are not serving me well if they rank their information over better information on other sites. Google lets you show or hide personal results with a single click. Maybe they should do the same for "natural" search results in which Google content is not boosted.

Do you think Google has turned evil? Do you want personalized search? Would you want Google to rank their own content the same way they do other's content? If you are not sure, check the first half of this TWIT podcast, in which experts discuss the issue.

You can also see a pretty funny parody showing Hitler reacting to Google's policy changes, but be warned that it is full of profanity and geek in-group references.