Mr. Cutts Goes To Washington, Testifies Google Has Integrity

The head of Google’s search spam fighting team, Matt Cutts, is in Washington DC this week, doing an “educational tour” to explain to US Federal Trade Commission members and congressional staffers that his company’s search results don’t require government regulation.

The Washington Post covers his visit, including a presentation today at Google’s Washington DC offices, where Cutts treated attendees to a 89 page slide presentation called “Search Integrity.” We’re working to get a copy of this.

Cutts explained the same thing that Google has told the search marketing community for ages. Google’s results are determined by an algorithm and not tweaked to get particular sites ranking well. Google steps in only to deal with spam, security threats or due to legal action. The Post quotes him as saying:

“The only reasons I know of to go in and change [search rankings] manually is for security, a court order or spam,” Cutts said. “It is impossible to pay for a better ranking.”

As Google’s market dominance has grown, it has come under fire in some quarters that it needs to be regulated, especially due to accusations that it is altering its results to its own favor.

Today, news came out that the European Union, as part of its anti-trust investigation of Google, is circulating a survey to see if Google has ever suggested that buying ads would boost someone’s natural results. Europeans Go “Fishing” For Bad Google Behavior In Anti-Trust Inquiry from us earlier today has more on that.

I’ve covered Google since the company first began. I have never, ever, seen that type of allegation hold up. It would be incredibly easy to spot both in results and through industry chatter, if Google was giving better listings to advertisers. In contrast, years ago when Yahoo ran a “paid inclusion” program, there were allegations that being in that program caused you to rank better. Those allegations were far more convincing based on what could be seen in the results and advertiser chatter.

A survey we covered earlier this week found that most Americans are against government regulation of search engines. Survey: 77% Of Americans Oppose Search Engine Regulation has more on that.

Again, from my perspective, a key difficulty in regulating a search engine’s editorial results is that it’s akin to the government regulating journalism. Indeed, when the New York Times wrote an editorial suggesting that Google’s search results needed government oversight, I turned that argument on its head to highlight some of the absurdity and concerns: The New York Times Algorithm & Why It Needs Government Regulation.

Of course, search engines aren’t exempt to existing laws. They are already subject to FTC guidelines about labeling sponsored listings. In Europe, because of Google’s market dominance (it has a share of 90% or more in some countries, versus 60-70% in the US), it may indeed be required to ensure it’s providing access to competitors.

Still, some of the arguments that competitors have made in the EU, that Google is “favoring” its own search properties, still weak when you start to drill in and understand how exactly that interferes with Google’s role of being a search engine. Our posts below have more on this:

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Legal: Regulation | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Doc Sheldon

    Patently ridiculous, IMO, that Google should have to defend itself against such claims, as it would be very detectable if they were showing favortism. I guess people are just fearful of any organization that gets so huge.

    Whatever happened to the burden of proof being upon the plaintiff?

  • Seth Finkelstein

    The idea that “suggested that buying ads would boost someone’s natural results” comes from the various pay-for-play and payola types of corruption. I agree with you that Google has never been touched by that. But I think any legal investigation would need to *ask* about it in terms of doing due-diligence, if only to report that they had checked out the possibility and Google was clean there.

    However, having the world’s dominant search engine deciding that, umm, algorithmically, its other properties just happen to give the best results – well, that’s another story.

    Note, while Matt Cutts is personally a very nice guy, in this context I don’t expect him to ever say anything much different from Google is powered by magic unicorns which defecate rainbows.

    The time to pay serious attention is if the investigation can pry out internal Google documents which are NOT for public consumption. Otherwise, it’s just shadow-boxing.

  • Techie

    I don’t understand why people don’t understand the simplicity of, “It’s impossible to pay for better rankings.”

  • Daniel Tunkelang

    Can someone explain to me what is wrong with Google openly favoring its own properties on its own search engine?

    If I search for GOOG on Google, I get a Google Finance OneBox at the top. The same search on Bing gives me a Bing Finance result at the top. Yahoo gives me a Yahoo Finance OneBox at the top. Same with other standard search engine properties.

    These other properties are *part* of the search engine. It’s not like Google is leveraging its search properties to favor Chrome or Android. Rather, it’s trying to provide users with a holistic search experience, just like Bing and Yahoo. I don’t understand the controversy.

    Full disclosure: I worked at Google. But now that I’ve left I feel more comfortable sharing my opinions. :-)

  • Yves

    Google seems to become the new microsoft in terms of bashing. If you search for places, facebook is before google places. So they not even putting their own services on top. In fact they make adwords sdvertising for their own products.

  • http://mauricewalshe mauricewalshe

    Doesnt say much for Googles C level Team that Eric, Larry OR Sergi are not the ones doing this.

    If i was Matt id be wanting a serious raise for doing the boards job for them.

  • Michael Martinez

    “Can someone explain to me what is wrong with Google openly favoring its own properties on its own search engine?”

    Given that Google controls the placement of its own properties in a system that otherwise requires everyone else to compete for placement on the basis of undisclosed factors, Google has an unfair advantage over anyone who was already offering a robust solution for the user experience.

    If you still don’t get THAT, come play poker with me. I’ll be the dealer and look at all the cards in advance, moving them around to my advantage. You can continue to play whatever hand you’re dealt.

    While I don’t believe Google is charging for placement in its search results, putting its own content first irrespective of the overall value of other sites IS an unfair practice.

    I have not yet formed an opinion on whether that should be regulated. The U.S. and EU governments haven’t demonstrated any competence when it comes to managing search engines.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Don’t Seth, please don’t. Santa, the Tooth Fairy, so much has been taken from me. Unicorns and fairies don’t power Google?

  • George Michie

    It does seem absurd. If I started my own “search engine” that was “George’s favorites” — a ranked selection of my favorite sites for any given search — and that got popular, would I be in trouble?

  • eric garrison

    Google does favor some of its own properties in select scenarios. Aggregated sites such as ehow and demand media sites? These are all ad sense arbitrage sites.

    Alternatives such as blekko look to be providing more clean and unbiased search results (for now)

  • JadedTLC

    Here’s where I get frustrated. It’s not a black and white issue. Google shouldn’t \erase all of their own properties from search\. That would be both childish and silly. On the other hand, I do not want lousy eHow or (not labeled as google) flooding my results. If it’s a worthy eHow link, fine, but to white list the entire domain is frustrating. (Just because I sign up at Demand Media, doesn’t mean I’m a writer.)

    Google should have to compete for results, just like every product does. And we’ll all have to acknowledge that they will get a boost because they are Google, just as The Fortune 500 get a boost because – as in every where else, it’s \who you know.\

    I think the reason everyone gets angry is because Google represents itself as a democracy or fair, etc. That’s how they BRAND themselves, when in fact they are no different than Yahoo or Bing, and just trying to make a buck. If they’d turn off the \don’t be evil\ or we’re the good guys branding, I think less people would read into their actions as negative. Hypocrisy is what tarnishes their image – eliminate the hypocrisy, then they can proceed with their current plans.

    my 2 cents

  • Michael Martinez

    \ It’s not a black and white issue.\

    I agree. I am often satisfied by the Google-only results, even though as an SEO I know that Google is siphoning off traffic from long-established sites that already provided that information quite robustly.

    Thing is, I chose to use Google to get that information because Google lends itself to third-party site navigation so well. I would be just as satisfied if Google simply listed those old sites first instead of scraping data and showing that first.

    I want a ubiquitous browser experience that gives me what I want when I want it. A search engine comes closest to accomplishing that. Google and Bing are doing most of what I want for me.

    But I also want to earn a living from the Internet. I don’t want Google and Bing taking my hard work and making money off it — especially if they are not going to compensate me.

  • Magnus Bråth

    “It does seem absurd. If I started my own “search engine” that was “George’s favorites” — a ranked selection of my favorite sites for any given search — and that got popular, would I be in trouble?”

    If you were big enought to be considered having a monopoly you might definately be. Microsoft pushing Internet Explorer over Netscape is a good example.

  • Build Ur Brand

    Yup, I remember paying for paid inclusion urls and I had to dig up your Paid Inclusion article from 10 years ago :o)

    I will admit though that I have sometimes been curious myself about the correlation of higher ranking pages within the natural results of Google for AdSense publishers.

    Since keywords in content are semi important to positioning then I wonder by adding in keyword rich content ads into a page, how much these ads can impact the value of the page in the serps, if at all of course.

    The question has always been in the back of my mind anyway and only comes to the front of it when I click on the top fold results and get pages full of no value and tons of AdSense ads.

  • http://mauricewalshe mauricewalshe

    @Michael Martinez by that argument my employers job related sites should get free placement on say the Telegraph, Times and Guardian job advert sections.

  • No Communism

    It’s AMAZING that the government would think it can stick it’s nose in the business of a private company. Why did we allow the government to get so big and claim so much power over us? The government poses a far greater risk of abuse of power because the ruling-class politicians can make laws and legislation that will send us to prison if we fail to “obey.” With a private business we can simply refuse to buy their product. But the government forces us to fund them via taxes at the threat of prison.

  • Daniel Tunkelang

    @Michael Martinez By your argument Bing and Yahoo are unfair in the examples I cite. Of course, Google has far more traffic, but that doesn’t seem material to your argument.

    The major search engines exist to serve users, not content creators or even the advertisers who foot the bill by paying for user attention. Do the search engines have an advantage over content creators on their own sites when they publish their own content? Absolutely. But is this unfair? I’d say no — they publish this content as part of their value proposition to users.

  • Webmaster T

    hehe tempest in a teapot… SEO’s don’t like it cuz it takes away opportunities for most of them. They act like they are shut out from that when in reality… all that is needed is getting the ability/knowhow to place in the Google Verticals like they can in the main index. Learn YouTube video and Google News and the other verticals. I see opportunity. Botttom line is Google wasn’t driven to Universal SERPs to get their proerties in… they were fulfilling user wants and needs… Their properties just happen to be some of the best… if they weren’t then… they’d but the best.

  • evilnoitan

    That NYT article really sent the dogs off barking up the wrong tree… I wonder if google paid to have it written.

    The issue is not integrity of search results; it’s that search companies can significantly impact large portions of the economy via subjective changes in the name of ‘quality’.

    Search co business practices should reflect the responsibility of providing a free public service and offer recourse/accountability when legal businesses are impacted by changes based on a subjective notion of ‘quality’. They could also
    offer preview releases (like google did for caffeine – but not for Mayday, which caused big damages).

    Providing such recourse would impact profit margins of these companies, so they continue to act irresponsibly. The smaller companies, who must actually compete, must offer recourse (eg microsoft’s'blocked’ indicator).

    So, it’s business practices, not search algorithms, that need to have integrity here.

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