We've tried debunking
the ridiculous concept of "search neutrality" a few times now. It's an invention by a few telcos who were upset that Google was supporting net neutrality rules (something I don't support). So they came up with this concept of "search neutrality" to get back at Google. But, of course, the situations are entirely different. The reason why people believe in net neutrality is because your ISP controls what you can do online. You don't have a choice. When it comes to search, not only do you have the ability to make an instant choice, but the whole point
of a search engine is to "rank" results based on what it thinks is best. You can't be "neutral" because a "neutral" search is just a unranked list of links that may or may not have anything to do with what you're searching for.
But, it appears the editorial folks over at the NY Times have gotten confused by all of this, and are saying that the government should step in and ensure that Google's algorithm is "fair"
Still, the potential impact of Google's algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google's tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google's other businesses.
Some early suggestions for how to accomplish this include having Google explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its tweaks. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those tweaks.
It's difficult to think of anything more ridiculous than a news publication calling for the government to step in and review the editorial guidelines of another company. So, just as the the telcos did with Google, why not flip this around, and make the same point about the NY Times. Here's my attempt:
The potential impact of the NY Times' coverage on the world/economy/war/etc. is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding the NY Times' coverage choices is solely intended to improve the quality of the world, and not to help the NY Times' or other businesses.
Some early suggestions for how to accomplish this include having the NY Times explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its front page choices. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those guidelines.
How would the NY Times (or pretty much any journalist) react to that? My guess is not too kindly.
Danny Sullivan, it appears, had a similar idea and rewrote the entire NY Times article
as if it were talking about the NY Times (rather than just the two paragraphs I did here). He then goes into detail on why the whole thing is bunk.
Search engines are very similar to newspapers. They have unpaid "organic" listings, where usually (though not always), a computer algorithm decides which pages should rank tops. The exact method isn't important. What's important is that those unpaid listed are the search engines' editorial content, content it has solely decided should appear based on its editorial judgment.
Search engine also have paid listings, advertisements, which aren't supposed to influence what happens on the editorial side of the house. We even have FTC guidelines ensuring proper labeling of ads and intended to protect against "advertorials" in search results.
It's a church-and-state divide with good search engines, just as it is with good newspapers.
What the New York Times has suggested is that the government should oversee the editorial judgment of a search engine. Suffice to say, the editorial staff of the New York Times would scream bloody murder if anyone suggested government oversight of its own editorial process. First it would yell that it has no bias, so oversight is unnecessary. Next it would yell even more loudly that the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects it from such US government interference.
He also points out why Google is significantly more transparent
than the NY Times about its own editorial policy:
Still, shouldn't Google share more about how it creates its algorithm? Compared to the New York Times, Google's a model of transparency. Consider:
- Google will list EVERY site that applies for "coverage" unlike the New York Times, which regularly ignores potential stories
- If Google blocks a site for violating its guidelines, it alerts many of them. The New York Times alerts no one
- Google provides an entire Google Webmaster Central area with tools and tips to encourage people to show up better in Google; the New York Times offers nothing even remotely similar
- Google constantly speaks at search marketing and other events to answer questions about how they list sites and how to improve coverage; I'm pretty sure the New York Times devotes far less effort in this area
- Google is constantly giving interviews about its algorithm, such as this one in February, along with providing regular videos about its process (here's one from April) or blogging about important changes, such as when site speed was introduced as a factor earlier this year.
There's a lot more in Sullivan's piece that basically debunks pretty much every myth that people (beyond just the NY Times) are making out to be an issue about Google's "neutrality" in search. Hopefully this silly concept goes away, but I fear there are too many lobbying dollars invested in it, that folks like Sullivan are going to have plenty of opportunities to re-debunk this concept in the future.