Will Increased Scrutiny Make Google More Transparent?
It’s been a tough week for Google from a PR standpoint.
On November 11, The Wall Street Journal published a story about how Google has been collecting Americans’ personal health data as part of an ambitious foray into healthcare. Although Google was not accused of any wrongdoing, the examination of its data collection practices resulted in the announcement of a federal probe. And then to cap off the week, on November 15, The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article, “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results.”
Let’s just say the title of that second article captured plenty of interest in the advertising world.
Do Google’s Actions Match Its Message?
The November 15 article, like the article about Project Nightingale, did not accuse Google of doing anything illegal. But The Wall Street Journal painted a picture of a company whose actions are not always aligned with its statements. For instance, The Wall Street Journal pointed out examples of Google intervening to manage search results contrary to what Google says on its blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Google:
- Weeds out more-incendiary suggestions in the search auto-complete function.
- Has made algorithmic changes to search results that favor big companies over smaller ones and “in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser,eBay, contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc. . . . .” (The comment about Facebook and Amazon is especially interesting given how Amazon and Facebook compete with Google for advertising revenue.)
- Employs thousands of contractors whose job is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. “Even so,” says The Wall Street Journal, “contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.”
For me one of the most fascinating details in the article is the inference that Google’s advertising growth has influenced how the company treats businesses on Google. According to the article:
Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results, a perk not available to businesses with no contacts at Google, according to people familiar with the matter. In some cases, that help included sending in search engineers to explain a problem, they said.
One former executive at a Fortune 500 company that received such advice said Google frequently adjusts how it crawls the web and ranks pages to deal with specific big websites.
Google updates its index of some sites such as Facebook and Amazon more frequently, a move that helps them appear more often in search results, according to a person familiar with the matter.
For its part, Google said it does not provide specialized guidance to website owners. Google said that faster indexing of a site isn’t a guarantee that it will rank higher. “We prioritize issues based on impact, not any commercial relationships,” a Google spokeswoman said.
I would urge any business to take the time to read the article. Here again, this is not an exposé of wrongdoing but rather an in-depth examination of how well Google’s practices align with its words.
The Core Issue: Transparency
Google is certainly not alone in facing increased scrutiny for its management of data and its relationship with advertisers, and the heat Google is experiencing right now is nothing compared to the firestorm that Facebook is enduring.
To me, the core issue of the November 15 article is this: transparency. Google’s practice of holding its cards close to the vest has created an impression of a business that has something to hide – perhaps not a fair impression, but as they say, perception is reality. As Google manages the fallout from the November 15 story, I do think we may see some interesting outcomes for advertisers:
- Smaller businesses — which the article characterizes as second-class citizens groveling for fair consideration — may receive more responsiveness than they typically get from the advertising giant when issues arise that demand attention.
- All businesses may see more transparency from Google, such as how the algorithm works and the explicit impact of the many algorithm changes that Google enacts through the year. A message of “Trust us – we know what we’re doing” just isn’t going over very well. At the same time, Google needs to protect its intellectual property, and the company says that revealing too much of how the algorithm works will make it easier for parties with bad intentions to game the system. It will be fascinating to see how Google reconciles these factors amid increased scrutiny.
In many ways, Google is grappling with issues that social media platforms do all the time – providing an open forum for the exchange of ideas among people while at the same time making it possible for businesses to succeed through advertising and commerce. What exactly goes on behind the scenes to represent the interests of both people and businesses is not always clear. But that situation may change soon.
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