Deconstructing “Search Neutrality”

The concept of “search neutrality” that has recently emerged is an attractive idea to many, appealing to notions of even-handedness and fair play. However it completely breaks down when one seriously considers its implications in practice. We’ve written a great deal about the challenges and problems lurking behind “search neutrality.”

Now in an academic article, Some Skepticism About Search Neutrality, NYU associate law professor James Grimmelmann closely examines and deconstructs the arguments behind the idea of search neutrality:

  1. Equality: Search engines shouldn’t differentiate at all among websites.

    credit: wikipedia

  2. Objectivity: There are correct search results and incorrect ones, so search engines should return only the correct ones.
  3. Bias: Search engines should not distort the information landscape.
  4. Traffic: Websites that depend on a flow of visitors shouldn’t be cut off by search engines.
  5. Relevance: Search engines should maximize users’ satisfaction with search results.
  6. Self-interest: Search engines shouldn’t trade on their own account.
  7. Transparency: Search engines should disclose the algorithms they use to rank web pages.
  8. Manipulation: Search engines should rank sites only according to general rules, rather than promoting and demoting sites on an individual basis.

Though not unsympathetic to the objectives behind “search neutrality,” Grimmelmann argues that search is not like other media and that it must inherently “discriminate” among results to best serve user needs. His conclusion, like ours, is that “search neutrality” is unworkable and even undesirable in practice.

Cut to Europe: it’s unlikely that the current European antitrust investigation against Google will conclude without at least some negative findings for Mountain View. The broad concern playing out in the context of the specific complaints in the action is that Google is simply too powerful and has too much control over online user behavior and thus the fate of websites and online businesses.

If the Europeans do in fact make adverse findings against Google it’s not clear what any remedy would be. With billions in the bank fines against Google would be almost meaningless and regulating the search results page itself — what results may appear in what places and in what order — is highly problematic to say the least.

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • http://www.sitestreamseo.com SiteStream SEO

    Wow. That seems to be a spectacularly poor deconstruction of Search Neutrality, at least if you base that concept on the resource that is linked to (www.searchneutrality.org).

    The case for Search Neutrality seems to be that Google has unprecedented power when you take into account not only its market share but the revenues it influences through search results.

    Given this power, Foundem are questioning Google’s practice of “blending” their own services into the editorial search results and prefering them to other alternatives.

    They are also suggesting that given the far reaching effects of penalties from Google, there should be a timely and transparent appeals process.

    I would have thought that difficult to argue with and certainly the 8 points listed above fail to represent that case as anything but a caricature.

    “Foundem defined search neutrality as the principle that search engine results should be comprehensive, impartial, and based solely on relevance.”

    There is also a suggestion from the Search Neutrality site that search engines not discriminate in favour of their own services and that where their own services are inserted they are clearly labelled.

    There was a time when I would have expected this to be Google’s position. Certainly it is what they expect of other site owners when placing Adsense on their sites.

    Google places and product search results dominating query spaces is not what I want as a user. And perhaps search engine users will eventually wake up and vote with their feet with this one. There was a time when Google would not have considered compromising the integrity of it’s results like this.

    Impossible to legislate for, maybe.

    Thanks for bringing this very important and interesting topic up.

  • modelportfolio2003

    I disagree with SiteStream’s basic premise which appears to be that Google’s position on inserting its own unlabelled services into search results is wrong. I think SiteStream needs to recall that Google does not alter its algorithms to its own advantages or in favor of sites which pay more.

    I understand Foundem is basically a Microsoft funded/owned site that is trying to disrupt Google’s attempts to provide users what they want. Users have voted every second of the day that what Google is providing is optimal to their needs—7 out of every 10 users worldwide search with Google. If the user is dis-satisfied with the result or lacks trust in Google’s judgement of what to show the user, they can easily find another search engine to meet their needs—-one click away. I find Google Places and Google Product Search results clearly marked and useful.

    Greg, sadly I believe that you are right that the EU marches to a different drummer and will probably figure out some way to clip Google’s wings in the long term. However, I see this to be a very long, drawn out affair that will not be settled fully for years.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    What I find disturbing in all this is the apparent concession by Google to algorithmically whitelist Foundem in the Main Web Search results, according to numerous news articles covering the Foundem issue going back to February 2010.

    I’m surprised the SEO community hasn’t made any fuss over that.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/deidredrewes Deidre Doom

    First, how can you expect search engines to be objective and then not have a bias? It’s not as cut and dry as “right” and “wrong”. Second, if search engines reveal their algorithms than spammers everywhere will know exactly what they need to do to flood search engines. I think search neutrality is something the government should stay away from. Windows, Google and Yahoo have built a successful structure to support the massive amounts of content available on the web. Not the government. So how does the government expect to step in now blindly and regulate something they obviously don’t understand in it’s entirety?

  • Ian Williams

    Its a joke to treat Google – a business – as if it has some state/social responsiblity to provide ‘clean’ results. It has none other than its own financial interests, which is fair and just.

    If the governments want net neutrality, then they should build their own search engine.

    If you’re arguing that Google has now become such a central piece of online surfer’s behaviour and, as such, needs to be controlled, I would disagree again. Coca Cola has become a central part of many of our meals for the same reasons as Google’s success – they offered the product best suited to customer’s needs.

    Should the Governments now be seeking to interefere with my Coca Cola? I’m happy with the product as it is. I don’t want to pick up a can and find it full of water. Likewise, I like Google as it is. If I want something different, I leave. But nothing meets my needs as well as Google, so I continue to use it.

    Build your own neutral search engine, or shut up. What is this, Rearden Steel?

  • http://www.greatwebsitesblog.com Badams

    I agree with SiteStream, the issue of search neutrality has been rather misrepresented here. Don’t get me wrong, I rile against ignorant legislators trying to over-regulate the internet as often as I rile against Google’s abuse of their nigh-monopoly in the (European) search market. I think a good balance needs to be struck between the need for users to receive unbiased and relevant results versus Google’s needs to run a business and make money.

    But when Google starts using its position to push other businesses out of the marketplace (as they’re doing now on multiple fronts, especially local search and other verticals) I think some sort of regulation is in order. Microsoft got slapped for abusing its dominant position in the OS market and that was a good thing. Google should not be surprised that it’s under similar scrutiny for doing things that are in essence identical to what Microsoft did in the ’90′s.

    Oh and anyone who ever quotes anything by Ayn Rand in discussions about regulation and capitalism should automatically be disqualified. Libertarian delusions have no place in debate about real-world topics.

  • Ian Williams

    Hello Badams,

    I’m actually opposed to Ayn Rand, Greenspan, Chicago School et al, and think that objectivist (NOT libertarian) economic ideals are largely pie-in-the-sky (as proved all over South America; hello the IMF!).

    However, outside of economics I do agree that governments should not be allowed to interfere in one man/men’s product. If that product dominates a market – largely because it is (was?) so good – then either a better alternative needs to be created, or frankly we lump it and live with it.

    It is not as if searching Google for ‘search engine’ shows only Google results, no? We have the freedom, and we have the choice – IMO it is OUR responsibility to force an agenda; not a governments.

    The people should have the freedom to vote with their feet.

  • Winooski

    “Should the Governments now be seeking to interefere with my Coca Cola?”

    Uh, dude? Governments make sure Coca-Cola doesn’t poison you or use excessive market power to prevent Pepsi from offering their competing soft drink. Both good things.

    “If the governments want net neutrality, then they should build their own search engine.”

    OK, you got me there, Mr. Williams. Honestly! Even though I think you offer this suggestion in jest, and even though I’m sure they wouldn’t do one one-thousandth as good a job as Google or Bing, I’d rather these hand-wringing governments offer their own search engines as alternatives.

    OK, so it begs the question of whether the taxpayer money would be well-spent, but I see it as something akin to public broadcasting, i.e., a supposedly non-corporate information service that offers an alternative to commercial media. That would also be (here in the US) in keeping with our First Amendment traditions of minimizing speech regulation (in this case, the right of Google to show whatever they want in their search results) in favor of allowing more voices to flourish (i.e., the government-sponsored search engine’s results).

    I dunno…is that a crazy idea?

  • Ian Williams

    Hi Winooski,

    Fair point on the Coca Cola.

    I actually wasn’t joking about a governmental search engine. For me, I think we’re seeing a company and a product becoming so big it is being confused with a public service, which it isn’t.

    Whilst I think we should regulate against monopolisation, I don’t think the state should seek to modify or regulate the contents of a particular product, provided it isn’t illegal or dangerous.

    Nevertheless, any argument levelled at Google in recent years (lack of neutrality, compilation of personal data) would likely be thrown at any Government-led search engine.

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