A Recommendation Is Not The Same As Corruption

from the a-mind-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste dept

I recently wrote about what a joke the concept of “search neutrality” is, because, by their very nature, search results are supposed to be a ranking of what the site thinks the user wants most. It appears that the folks who are paid handsomely to push this “search neutrality” meme aren’t too happy that someone has called them out for making something out of nothing. Scott Cleland, who is famously paid to blog anything that will make Google look bad, took issue with my statements, and sought to debunk what I had to say. To those pushing search “search neutrality,” I would suggest coming up with better arguments (or finding someone who can actually argue logically), because Cleland’s points don’t cut it. Basically, he pretended I said something I didn’t say and then ran with it.

Specifically, he pretends that when I say that search is inherently non-neutral, I mean that it’s okay for Google to give higher ranking results to advertisers. I neither said nor implied any such thing. What I said (I thought clearly, but it’s easier for Cleland to knock over a strawman) was that there’s no such thing as “neutrality” in search, because any ranking is biased by what the search engine thinks is best. A “neutral” search engine doesn’t exist, because it could never recommend any links. A recommendation is bias, but that’s not the same as corruption or undue influence. It just means bias towards recommending what the search engine thinks is best.

However, Cleland jumps off on that to point out that even Google has said that paid search can impact quality. But Cleland is (in his usual manner) taking things totally out of context. The quotes he’s discussing were about sites that mix paid search in their organic listings. To date, no one has shown convincing proof that Google has actually done this. If there were proof, then it would suggest that Google was doing something misleading, which would be an issue for the FTC to look at (as it has with other paid search listings in the past). However, that’s hardly a call for “search neutrality.” Mixing ads into the organic listings is one thing, but that’s not what we were discussing. It’s just the strawman Cleland tossed out there since he can’t let that “search neutrality” thing die.

Second, he quotes Google saying that it doesn’t “manipulate rankings to put partners higher,” as proof that I’m wrong that the “whole point of search is to be biased.” Again, he is arguing something I did not say. I said (again, clearly, though Cleland ignores it) that the bias is to put the results that it feels make the most sense out there. Saying that “the whole point of search is biased” does not mean “it’s okay to mix paid search in organic results without telling people” as Cleland seems to think. It’s almost as if Cleland doesn’t even understand how search works.

Finally, Cleland links to a series of recent antitrust lawsuits against Google, which all seem to be based on the same ridiculous misinterpretations of how search engines work, and claims these are “documented charges of fraud, mis-representation, anti-competitive behavior.” Except, they are no such thing. They are claims from a few small companies, bankrolled by Google’s competitors, to misrepresent what Google is doing — sort of like Cleland himself. None of those lawsuits have been decided, but I would be amazed if any of them came out with Google on the losing side. And, finally, on that, I never said that those lawsuits shouldn’t move forward (as Cleland implies). I just pointed out that the claim of “search neutrality” being an issue is bogus. But none of these lawsuits are actually about “search neutrality.” They’re about claims that Google somehow took anti-competitive actions against these sites.

Most importantly, however, the reason people ask for “net neutrality” is because when you have an ISP, you have to go through that ISP to get anywhere. So if it’s not “neutral” you can get locked into an experience you don’t want. That’s not the case with search. If you don’t like your search experience, and if you find that the search engine of your choice has polluted its links with paid partners, then you can immediately go elsewhere. That’s the key point, but it’s never one that Cleland will address. Because he can’t.

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Comments on “A Recommendation Is Not The Same As Corruption”

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Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 at least make up a damn name.

Multiple people pointing out factual and logical inaccuracies in your arguments has more to do with your lack of ability to form any coherent point.

You’ve even confirmed the points Techdirt has been making all along without realising it http://techdirt.com/article.php?sid=20100616/1038269856#c286. There’s more than likely more occasions of this happening, but right now I’m not that bothered to go searching through your terrible posts.

Trerro says:

Uhhh... someone doesn't remember the past

I remember when search engines were “nuetral” – they ranked by how many keywords people spammed into sites, rendering all of the engines of the time next to useless. It got to the point that “meta search” sites like Dogpile became popular on the grounds that if you searched a dozen or so engines at once, *someone* had to have a useful result.

The fact that Google instead used an algorithm to intelligently return results is the reason they blew all of the competition away pretty much instantly. They were, quite simply, the first search engine to not suck.

Since then, the gap has shrunk a bit, but Google remains by far the best search site (although some engines are better for specific areas). If you want to beat Google, make a better algorithm.

McCrea says:


Mike said it right. The rankings are defined by the search algorithm. What qualifies as better will always be arbitrary.

So, anybody that wants to run around screaming how much a site paid for advertising should not effect the ranking understands the argument.

Anybody that states it should be neutral does not merit any attention. (Or to be polite, does not understand the argument.)

This is how you use 200 words to attempt to describe what “by definition” means. Search engines must be arbitrary, because “better” is subjective.

Anonymous Coward says:

Heck, if you use TORbutton for firefox it has a feature that if it falls into a captcha it can redirect you to any other search engine you want. Can people change ISP at no cost with the click of a button?

Google is a natural monopoly that is maintained by its competence not by law. Sure Google can turn and probably will turn evil once the original founders retire and let lawyers go up the corporate ladder but it is not the case right now and I don’t see Google lobbying for laws to protect its market share the same thing can’t be said by telcos and ISP’s in the U.S. that have the nerve to tell people they are number 1 when they don’t even come close to it.

PhillD (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

First, You are AC on a board that does not verify identity, your comments are moot.

Just to feed the troll a bit but going for the double moot,
Please realize that I can use any other search engine I wish without any cost or even effort to change.

Any monopoly has to have a penalty for leaving it, the competitors sucking in comparison can not in any way create a “monopoly”.
If the competition weren’t idiots it would be an “opportunity”.
How sad for them.

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

At least he uses a profile so that people can track this thoughts and ideas to get a good idea about his views.
That is why TAM stopped using his profile. He contradicted himself so many darn times and people started pointing that out often. What happens when everybody points out how much of an idiot you are? You simply stop logging in and continue on with your stupidity. That’s the TAM way.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Who in the hell is this Scott Cleland fellow?

His stuff reads like “On the Proofs for the Existence of God” by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not as circular in the logic department but the sort of thing someone would write to convince themselves and other people of an argument they were not sure of or were making up.

Does he get paid by the entertainment industry, or was he dropped on his head as a child?

“Second, Mr. Masnick’s blanket assertion: “The whole point of search is to be biased” completely contradicts Google’s public representations.

Google’s website claims: “We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results and no one can buy better PageRank”

Those are mutually exclusive statements One is about paying clients being put in the “actual” search results. The other is about targeting the results of people searchs to them. Two totally different things.

“First, none other than Google’s founders railed against advertising causing “insidious” bias in search results — in their famous Stanford paper on search engines — see Appendix A.

“The advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search results to users…”
“Advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results.”
“We believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent.” “

Again here is google saying that it is important to not mix paid results with actual results. He proves what he is trying to disprove

“in hopes that the danger of “search neutrality” will somehow go away as long as he manages to not see or hear anything about it. “

This is search neutrality. The results are not biased by a customer paying to intermingle their paid results with the search engines.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Who in the hell is this Scott Cleland fellow?

“He’s been trashed so many times, he only fools the really stupid.”

I went through his blog yesterday got about 10 entries in and couldnt take it any more.

“It’s unfortunate that the majority is below average intelligence.”

I dont think it has to do with intelligence or stupidity. He seems to be part of the entertainment industry ecosystem. Telling people in an industry about to fail, exactly what they want to hear. When you have people with doubts and fear “hope” is a very powerful message. He seems to supply that to them.

Not that its going to do much good …

direwolff (profile) says:

as always, mike nails it. google’s novelty was not inherently in search but in their results sorting algorithm. prior to google the other search engines also had sorting algorithms which were clearly less than optimal. google’s sorting algorithm is constantly being optimized but has resulted in better results than what was previously available, and one could argue in what is currently available as well.

the very idea that search engines have to have sorting algorithms immediately suggests that a decision has to be made about the order in which results will be presented. i actually don’t understand what the term “search neutrality” is supposed to mean? neutrality in the sorting algorithm? that would make no sense. the ability for us to be able to have access to other search engines? we have that already (and yes, the others are kind of lacking).

mike, best to ignore the faux debate, any momentum it gathers will fall apart when the question of “what would you suggest Google do?” comes to them 😉

Anonymous Coward says:

at the end of the day, if google lets things like the presence of adsense on a page, as an example, influence ranking, they are awfully close to crossing a line.

if they give priority to sites using google tools, google search boxes, or other things, they are close to crossing that line too.

they are a private company and they can do what they like. but stacking the deck to push more adwords, example, would have the potential to be defrauding bidders by generating more page traffic to sites that generate business for google, but not for the adwords buyers.

further, if google particularly stacks the deck not to present the best results on page 1, but rather on page 2, it would potentially increase the traffic to adwords clients artificially. while some might want the traffic, others could see it as nothing more than a magicians forcing a move.

it all depends how you look at it. google sits right on the edge pretty much all the time. i think that mike has a personal relationship with google, and probably should not be commenting on them without full disclosure at minimum.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Hmm, care to give examples of sites getting unfair “Google preferences”? Hilariously, Bing fits your descriptions entirely, with many major websites getting passed over for Microsoft results on the first pages. In fact, the major complaint about Bing is that it doesn’t give results that are as good as Google’s.

I love how you pretend to make accusations while being completely theoretical, though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

in the past, some seo work has been done by buying a small amount of adwords, as a bribe to the google gods. it does tend to work. i have seen sites put adwords on their pages and suddenly get indexed more often and become more relevant. using google webmaster tools and submitting a sitemap tends to get you better results, especially if the site is also using google trends or google adwords.

since the algo is a black box to outsiders, it pretty much leaves us only to speculate as to cause and effect. if i had hard evidence, i would likely be bound by a non-discloure from employment at google.

mike might know more, considering matt cutts is a personal friend, and google sponsors his events and even gives him space in their offices to hold his seminars.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“in the past, some seo work has been done by buying a small amount of adwords, as a bribe to the google gods. it does tend to work. i have seen sites put adwords on their pages and suddenly get indexed more often and become more relevant. using google webmaster tools and submitting a sitemap tends to get you better results, especially if the site is also using google trends or google adwords.”

Lets assume your premise is true and buying adwords or using Google’s tools actually does increase a site’s ranking (I’m not saying it is, just assuming for the sake of argument). I see two ways this can be explained. The first is extremely simplistic, that Google is artificially biasing those sites because of money.

The second is more complex and nuanced. By buying adwords, the site starts appearing on the paid results section, and thus starts getting more traffic. By getting more traffic, it gets more people linking to it, talking about stuff on the site, and hence becomes more relevant and Google’s algorithm correctly identifies this. By using the Google webmaster tools, creating a sitemap, etc, the site makes it easier for Google’s algorithm to correctly identify parts of the site that are more relevant than the algorithm could do without the “help” of the sitemap, thus once again, correctly raising the ranking for particular search terms because it is in fact relevant.

I’m gonna go with the second option.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Completely false.

You can even see on SEO forums and websites that several professional companies have tried using Google’s services to try and bump their ranking. They’ve done side-to-side comparisons on how fast Google indexes their pages, how quickly the show up in search engines, and how much their page rank is increased. The general consensus is: signing up for Google’s stuff does not do anything at all for SEO.

Just look at any of the SEO competitions that have been held. The winners aren’t the “blackhat SEO’s” that use underhanded tactics. It’s the people who use page popularity and dedicated viewer bases to generate page interest.

Anonymous Coward says:

The way all search engines work (notice its a search engine, machines are inherently unbiased, otherwise your car’s engine would only run on BP oil or dead orphan hearts) is that it conducts the search ,and then observes the selection you make. That selection is given a search ranking for the search term used.

Cleland is biased because when he uses a search engine, he picks the entry that makes most sense to him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Personally I’m in favor of search neutrality. When I search for something I want to see all 200+ million results displayed on the screen at the same time (in a random order). Then I want to spend the next 3 hour guessing which link will give the right answer, oh don’t forget to include the really bad “you might get a virus” links (you can’t discriminate against them).

Anonymous Coward says:

“Scott Cleland, who is famously paid to blog anything that will make Google look bad”

It’s amazing how some people think they can just buy an opinion. Mainstream media also suffers the same problem, they censor any anti IP arguments because big corporations think that they can simply buy public opinion by controlling mainstream media and buying them out and buying the laws necessary to have such a media monopoly. Very sad and dishonest behavior on their part and makes mainstream media positions even more suspect.

Just Another Moron in a Hurry (profile) says:

Cutting through the rhretoric

Mike, I agree with you. Total Search Neutrality is stupid.

But that isn’t what the supporters are asking for, is it?

The supporters of Search Neutrality don’t care that Google is trying to give the User what they are looking for. They care that Google might be giving the User what Google wants them to see.

You should write about that, and whether it has any merit, instead of worrying what Scott Cleland says.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Cutting through the rhretoric

“They care that Google might be giving the User what Google wants them to see.”

Then they are free to find another search engine or to start their own search engine if they think they can do a better job. Heck, if they want the government to fund a government search engine that makes more sense than having them regulate private search engines even.

“You should write about that, and whether it has any merit, instead of worrying what Scott Cleland says.”

He has written about whether or not what you mention has merit. But that’s not to say he can’t also write about what Scott Clelan says as well.

Just Another Moron in a Hurry (profile) says:

Re: Re: Cutting through the rhretoric

It talked about how there is no such thing as an unbiased algorithm, and about Microsoft saying Google was anti-competitive, and about competition in the search engine space.

But what the article didn’t cover was what the supporters of Search Neutrality were actually trying to achieve. He didn’t talk about whether their goals had any actual merit.

Personally, I don’t think Mike’s previous article was very good. I would have liked to see more about why the actual goals of Search Neutrality supporters are not worth putting time and effort into, or what the best way to achieve those goals are.

I think Mike got close to taking some of the wind out of Search Neutrality supporters’ sails when he talked about competition in the search industry. But rather than pointing out how greater competition would allow customers to support the search engine that is achieving those goals without regulation, he instead throws out some statistic comparing search engine competition with operating system competition which does nothing to help point out how corruption in search engine results can be dealt with outside of legislation.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Paid Search Cannot be "Neutral"

I pretty much illustrated my position in the last thread but I see there still isn’t consensus on the definition of “search neutrality”.

The way this is playing out, the meaning of “search neutrality” (originally an ideal born out of concerns of censorship) is going the way of “free market”. i.e. what is commonly called “free market” today in government and in media is no such thing at all, but simply a reference to the dominant economic realities of today.

It is absurd that Microsoft would try to jump into the fray claiming we need “search neutrality”, because they themselves are in the search business with results biased to advertisement. This is, however, entirely American for a big established company to come whining for “help” in a market they have yet to really penetrate.

The simple fact is that paid search is a vital part of the modern economy, and without the resources, Google would not have had any where near the impact on society that they have had today.

Everyone should choose their search engine based on their own parameters. But do not kid yourself… there is nothing 100% organic about paid search, nor with the “inbound links” algorithm which SEO’s legitimately use to skew results to their customers (Google’s advertisers).

If you truly believe Google makes it bread by all the clicks it gets in the “Sponsored Links” column, you need to take closer look at your own search habits and ask yourself why you think so many people would behave differently.

Page One of the “natural” search results is where all the money is made. In this society, it could be no other way, or it would not be very well “paid” search.

Halvorsen (user link) says:


Scott Cleland –

This who discussion is beyond ridiculous. Search neutrality? Google is a champion of this in every way. They have such a large share of the market because they revolutionized the way search engines should behave in that they don’t give someone higher rankings because they paid for them.

Please, if you’re going to say their not “search neutral,” provide sound examples. Otherwise you’re a babbling idiot.

I wrote my comments on this site because I refuse to signup for any sort of an account on his site. And I don’t want to participate in a discussion that will help his crap site.

Theo Peek (user link) says:


By search neutrality, Scott means that search engines should not rank any results over others based for the wrong reasons (like commercial ones). Mike interprets this as there should be no ranking at all.

You guys both seem to know what you are talking about, I am sure you can see each other’s points. Or is it that fighting just attracts more visitors (talk about wrong reasons).

mkam (profile) says:

Re: Google Apologia

Mr. Cleland,

Your post borders on making no sense throughout it’s entirety.

For example:
Mr. Masnick effectively dismisses the possibility that Google could have monopoly power, even though the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division determined Google is dominant in search advertising and was prepared to bring a Sherman Act monopolization case against Google in November 2008, if it did not drop the proposed Google-Yahoo ad Agreement.

Why would Mike every say anything like Google could never be a monopoly? That is stupid. Of course they could be a monopoly if they bought every other search engine out there. But if this theoretically did happen and they started producing results that people didn’t perceive as the best Google could do, then another search engine would be stated to provide better results.

Last week I rebutted Mr. Masnick’s Google antitrust apologia by explaining that even Google itself disagreed with Mr. Masnick’s characterization and also by spotlighting the many pending current antitrust cases against Google for anti-competitively leveraging its monopoly power to favor Google-owned content over its competitors’ content

What does a pending case have to do with fact? This is where you border on the nonsensical. How many ‘anti-competitively leveraging’ cases have gone through with Google being the loser?? Perhaps you can use Bing to find the answer to that question?

Mr. Masnick is assuming the role of Google’s go to apologist again by declaring he is “almost certain” Google’s three-year WiFi data collection in over thirty countries by retrofitting its entire StreetView vehicle fleet with special WiFi antennae was “accidental.”

This is where you might have a small amount of truth in your post. Google probably knew they had a WiFi antenna on the StreetView vehicle. But the question to ask is ‘why is driving around with a WiFi antenna on you car illegal?’ Since when are you not allowed to drive down a public road capturing random parts of the RF spectrum? I wonder how many others are guilty of the heinous crime because they leave their smartphone or laptop WiFi transmitter on when they go somewhere. I leave my WiFi on my Droid all the time and drive to work and you know what I probably pick up some unencrypted data from all the houses that have WiFi networks. Google should not have done it, granted, but illegal? No! Hell most people have a RF receiver in their car that records satellite signals. We commonly refer to them as GPS units. Of my god!! Google had one of those too, they are doubly illegal by collecting parts of the RF spectrum.

BTW, nice putting your link into a blog that actually has a good search ranking and trying to increase your traffic. You aren’t going to get it by thought provoking writing.


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