These days, search is secondary nature to all of us. Whenever we wish to look for information, the first thing we do, is head to a search provider like Google or Bing.
Over the years, Google has made giant strides in the search market, constantly tweaking their product, such that it has become THE dominant player in the search market. While there are alternatives like Bing, DuckDuckGo and many others, Google’s mind share is very high.
Given the mind share of Google, many of its competitiors have ganged up to form an alliance and are petitioning governments that Google implement ‘search neutrality’.
‘Search Neutrality’? What is that? The argument of Google’s competitiors is that Google uses algorithms to rank search results. This very ranking is considered to be ‘discriminatory’ behaviour.
While not praising what Google does, let us keep its algorithms aside for a moment and ask the question ‘What is search’? Search is the method that allows is to navigate through information and reach the most relevant nugget of information we are looking for. Inherent in the search definition is the fact that we have to compare multiple possibilities and options with each other and grade them against each other. In other words, when we have multiple eligible documents that match our search string/pattern, we need to rate the documents against each other and hope to arrive at the most relevant document. Hence it goes without saying that we have to rate the candidates against each other for relevance.
Search engines essentially do this analysis and comparison on our behalf. Search engines scan through documents and try to extract meaning from them, using keywords, textual analysis and linkage to other documents. Typically, all such inferences will be encoded into algorithms that take webpages as input and then classify the pages according to various parameters. Whenever a search condition is executed by the user, it is matched against the patterns and relevant results are displayed.
Google, being a private company, does not share its ranking algorithms – with good reason. Once it does so, its competitors will implement the same algorithms and grab market share. As per the book ‘Inside the Googleplex’ we are led to believe that Google has developed algorithms that trawl through massive amounts of data to come up with suitable ranking. While such algorithms are always written by humans, as long as there is no real manual filtering of the rankings generated for pages, Google is safe from ‘search tuning’ allegations.
What happens when we compare ‘net neutrality’ with ‘ search neutrality’? In net neutrality, we expect that telcom providers and ISPs will not discriminate between services they provide and the similar services provided by competitors, when their customer make use of the same infrastructure. Does a similar concept hold true in case of any search engine? Does the search engine provide common infrastructure that is shared by multiple search providers? Not the case. Each search provider has its own seach infrastructure.
The concept of neutrality is relevant when competitors use some common infrastructure, which is definitely not the case for search.
The main grouse against Google is that it is the biggest player in the search market. As the task of getting bigger market share and mind share is getting tougher day by day and takes times, filing such disingenuous complaints seems to be the method to mire the opponent down such that their attention is diverted from the main threat. Additionally, once any government gets involved in an investigation, the accused essentially goes on the back foot and needs to work carefully.
It seems that a recent FTC investigation of Google has revealed what the book states – Google does not tinker with the search results and the ranking other than what its algorithms tell it. In other words, the algorithms are not partial to specific information such that they award undue priority or undue penalty over other similar information available to it.