Opinion: Congress needs to do their homework on search engines

During a Dec. 11 hearing, congressional representatives questioning Google's CEO demonstrated their lack of knowledge about how search engines actually work.

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I am watching C-SPAN right now, listening to Google CEO Sundar Pichai respond to questions to various U.S. Representatives. I sincerely believe Pichai is doing a very good job answering the questions posed to him.

What is astonishing me as an SEO professional for almost 25 years (I was doing this work before Google came into the mainstream) are the representatives’ comments. In particular, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Chabot (R-OH), in my opinion, have a considerable LACK of quality research about Google or any web search engine.

No web document deserves to rank. I have stated that as an expert witness in multiple legal cases – rankings are earned. When I hear any conservative, moderate, independent or liberal complain about the lack of representation in Google search results, my response is, “Look in the mirror, first.” What did the website owners do to earn a spot in a Google News, Google Image, etc. search result?

Search engine optimization, as an industry, existed before Google came into the mainstream. I was there almost 20 years ago when Sergei Brin spoke at his first Search Engine Strategies conference. Have any of these complainants from today’s hearing worked with a reputable SEO firm or SEO consultant? I haven’t heard any of the representatives talk about that.

Most SEO professionals know that Google tailors listings for every searcher. I can perform a search query in Illinois, for example, and my colleagues living in New York, Kentucky, California, Pennsylvania (or any other state) are likely to get different results. Again, information on how this works is readily available, particularly on Search Engine Land (like here and here) and on Google. Did these two representatives work with an SEO firm or consultant that would have informed them of this fact and showed them the citations? They could have.

Pichai also mentioned the Quality Rater Guidelines. Here is a small screenshot of how Google autofills my query:

google SERP

And here is my autofill information from Bing:

Screen Shot 2018 12 21 At 7.31.53 AM

Honestly, the Quality Rater Guidelines are not hard to find. (I am not signed into Google or Bing. Nor am I using my regular work computer. But I am in Illinois with my location turned off.)

Maybe representatives Smith and Chabot should read these guidelines and understand what search engine optimization is before making ludicrous accusations against Google. Perhaps everyone in Congress should read these guidelines, too. There are guidelines online on both the Bing and Google websites.

I understand concerns about Google. I have some concerns myself and am not afraid to voice them.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to C-SPAN for showing this hearing. It is showing me that members of our Congress have a considerable lack of knowledge about how search engines work and how website owners are also responsible for how their listings appear in search engines, not only Google.

The sense of entitlement is misplaced. If conservative news stations are not abiding by Google’s guidelines and are not working with a qualified SEO firm or consultant to optimize news listings, or a skilled link developer, then I don’t want to hear your opinion until you take responsibility for your own web documents. If you followed the guidelines, you might see your listings rank better in search engines.

I am not saying that all of the questions posed to Pichai were unfair, of course. But I heard enough questions to make me want to write this response.

What is unfair to Pichai and Google are congressional representatives who clearly do not do their research – or hire qualified researchers to assist them to learn how web search engines actually work. I’m a scientist – not only an information scientist but a life scientist. I have to be objective in my work, and I did not see this objectivity from the representatives in this hearing (in my opinion).

Pichai kept his cool and I give him kudos for that. As I am watching C-SPAN, I am listening to him answering questions as fairly and as objectively as he can.

The next time a Google representative appears in a congressional hearing, I would like to see that members of our Congress have at least read and understood those Quality Guidelines. I want to see citations from Search Engine Land and other reputable resources, like the information that search engine companies offer outright.

The ignorance about search engines and search engine optimization should have ended long ago. Okay, U.S. Congress, lead by example. Start learning. Believe me, people like me in the search/retrieval industry will be able to tell whether or not you have objectively done your research.

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About the author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari is currently a contributing editor for the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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