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Summary:

With its new “Search plus Your World” personalized results, Google may argue it is enhancing its service, but it’s also coming dangerously close to reneging on the promise it made to users in 2004: to provide unbiased links to those who are searching for information.

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There’s been a lot written about the benefits and disadvantages of Google’s new personalized search, which the web giant calls “Search plus Your World.” Some say they appreciate social results in their searches, while others say Google is just cluttering up its results with useless content, so they are turning to alternatives like Microsoft’s Bing. But as author Steven Levy notes in his analysis of Google’s new features, the real point is that by favoring results from its own Google+ social network over content from competing networks such as Twitter and Facebook, the company is dangerously close to reneging on its original promise to provide unbiased links to those searching for information.

Google has said that by offering its new personalized search, it’s trying to evolve from being just a search engine that ranks links between websites, and become one that “understands not only content, but also people and relationships.” That’s a valuable goal, but for now, the main source of those people and relationships — as far as Google search is concerned — is Google’s own Google+ network. That may make some people like photographer Thomas Hawk happy, because they use the Google network a lot, but others are not as impressed. And according to a report from Bloomberg on Friday, the search company’s behavior has already attracted the attention of antitrust regulators in Washington.

Why are Twitter results being excluded or downgraded?

Among the most vocal critics of the move is Twitter, which has complained that Google is deliberately favoring its own Google+ results over those from other networks. The search giant’s response was that Twitter could have renewed a deal to provide its content to Google via an API — a deal that the two sides had for some time — but chose not to (sources say the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on price). Not everyone buys this argument, however: Alex Macgillivray, a former senior legal counsel at Google and now general counsel at Twitter, has scoffed at the suggestion that it was somehow Twitter’s fault, saying:

In the Google I knew, you didn’t have to have a deal for your stuff to be considered relevant.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over whether Google could display more Twitter content or Facebook content even if it wanted to, with chairman Eric Schmidt arguing the company is loath to do so without an arrangement with either company. Others have debated whether the “rel=nofollow” tag Twitter adds to its links (something Google’s rules require) is a reasonable response, as well as why the search giant doesn’t index the @ symbol, which Google staffer Matt Cutts has said in the past was a result of not wanting to collect email addresses.

But those questions are beside the point in many ways. The crucial point, as John Battelle notes in his piece on the subject, is that Google appears to be turning its back on the statement it made to investors and the world when it went public in 2004. In the prospectus it released at the time, the company promised that its results would be purer and therefore more useful than some of its competitors, saying:

Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

Google continues to maintain that its results are unbiased

Plenty of companies have changed their minds about things they said in their IPO documents, especially after seven years or more — but Google has never once said it planned to deviate from that statement. In fact, as recently as last fall, Eric Schmidt told a Senate committee that was holding a hearing into allegations of unfair competition that Google’s results were not “cooked” to promote its own products. But how else are we to interpret what happens when you search for content with the new personalized features turned on? Google+ results are given prominence in every respect.

Matt Cutts has argued that these results show content from other networks as well, but there is virtually nothing from Twitter or Facebook, even when someone is clearly looking for a Twitter bio or profile page (both of which should be open to indexing). And Levy says by doing this — whether because Google wants to promote its own social network, or because it wants to apply pressure to Twitter or Facebook to open up their data — the search company is taking a fairly substantial risk:

When using its algorithmic wizardry to deeply integrate social information into its search experience, it behooves Google to avoid even a whiff of bias. With SPYW, though, the odor is unmistakable.

Even search expert Danny Sullivan, who has defended Google numerous times in the past from allegations that it gives its own services preferential treatment, says that what the company is doing with Google+ is unlike anything else it has done before, and that this is a “disturbing” move for the company to make. Instead of just providing links to sources of information, Google is giving content from its own network more prominence, which Sullivan says that is “unprecedented in my time covering the company.”

As we’ve mentioned before, this could easily draw the fire of antitrust regulators who are already on Google’s case. But it’s not just regulators that Google should be afraid of; it should also be careful not to turn its back on users, who have come to expect one thing from the search giant and are now getting something else entirely.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Ditatompel

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  1. Hashim Warren Friday, January 13, 2012

    GOOGLE INTERVIEW IN 2004

    LARRY PAGE: We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we’re happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that’s the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information.

    PLAYBOY: Portals attempt to create what they call sticky content to keep a user as long as possible.

    PAGE: That’s the problem. Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It’s a very different model.

    WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OLD GOOGLE?

    1. Thanks for that, Hashim — that’s a nice contrast with what Google is doing now.

    2. Time? Social networking? People using the internet for more than an encyclopedia? Evolution of communication? Constantly shifting demands from the market?

      The real question is, what *hasn’t* happened?

      1. Brendan Thesingh Wogan Friday, January 13, 2012

        Well most people still go to Google for search. Basically this is comparable to grabbing ye olde phonebook and the publisher fills the first 200 pages with gossip content. My prediction is that Google will turn back on this default social decision within 3 months. Because they will also notic it will kill their adwords revenue. Which still is their biggest cahscow. Next to that it’s just wrong. The internet has changed, but search in essence has not. Search is about the most relevant results, and that is not automatically what my nextdoor neighbour listens to when I search for music. The more I think about it, the more idiotic it becomes.

    3. It’s still there. Just because the results show “From Google+” doesn’t mean that it is Google created content. What it’s showing is results that are more relevant to you because people you know vouch for it. It shows what your friends share and know to be right.

  2. Honestly, “Search plus your world” is a pathetic attempt by Google to push their social network down users’ throats. If I am searching for something, there is 1 in 100 chance that I will want to search my own network for that. In addition to that, if I am looking for something in my own network, I will search in my own network (Facebook or Google+). The fact that I am searching it on Google means that I am searching for something out there in the web.

    Deepak
    http://www.olsup.com

  3. I first heard about Google in a trip to the Valley, back when the dominant engines were Lycos and Alta Vista. Came back, tried some searches and was astounded at how the things I wanted to find were in the top few results vs the top few pages. Told EVERYONE about it… sent email around the several hundred person startup I was working at. That was 1999 or 2000.

    For the first time since then, I’m considering making another engine my default.

    1. Wow — that’s quite the statement, Rick. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I switched to Bing about 3 months ago. I go back to Google only on programming queries.

  4. Oddly enough, I search Google with no additional network results. The reason? I have a Google ID that isn’t tied to Google+.

    The entire argument is predicated on a Google search user having a Gmail account and then having tied that account to Google+, and then NOT having turned off the Search plus. I don’t think anti-trust regulators will find that is unfair competition when you can simply shut it off, or not have a Plus account, or any other number of permutations that allow you to have the same 20+ pages of useless, spam-filled, unrelated links to the topic you searched for to comb through.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Cyndy, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. For one thing, the personalized search is opt-in by default, which I think some people (including regulators) frown on. But as Danny Sullivan has pointed out, Google also appears to give preferential treatment to Google+ results even if you aren’t logged in, although it’s not clear whether that’s just in an ad spot or in regular search results as well. Part of the problem is that as soon as Google engages in some preferential treatment for its own properties, I think some users may start to be suspicious of its behavior in other ways as well.

    2. Windows users could have simply installed any other browser, that didn’t help them in antitrust case.

  5. We agree that this is not a good thing. However, the masses will like it because the search results will become more and more like what we want to see versus what we should see, in an indirect way. Kind of like the stratification of “news” – you used to have a few networks that everyone watched. Now there is a blog or feed for every possible flavor.

    The ultimate,most pleasing,yet irrelevant search result will lead you to a picture of yourself, or perhaps Google will?simply respond with “what do you think? “

    1. Brendan Thesingh wes Friday, January 13, 2012

      I doubt if masses will like it, because even the masses go to Google to find stuff they don’t know about. If they then get search results from their illiterate neighbour its not much use. Furthermore putting social on as default is very facebook like.

  6. Mark Drummond Friday, January 13, 2012

    Love the title of the article, “Has Google broken its promise to users?”, as it relates strongly to the notion of a brand, and of a well-defined value proposition.

    To me, a brand is the promise of an experience in the future, given some set of experiences in the past. The nature of the experience offered is grounded in the value proposition offered.

    I’ve always believed that the Google brand stands for objective access to the very best material on the web. In a sense, this is “reference search”, meaning that if I search for something, I believe that the branded promised of Google is to find me the very best resources related to my search term, from wherever on the web they live. The value prop of this is clear and simple.

    Mixing in social results is just confusing to this value prop. There are different problems to be solved in search, and simply throwing different sorts of results together confuses the brand promise and value prop.

    I might want to know what my friends think of a product that I’m thinking of buying. A service that helps me do this offers a specific value prop. The machinery under the covers that’s required to deliver on the promise looks a lot like search (content acquisition, indexing, query serving, and ranking — the four key steps of all search systems). But I think of this task very differently than I do reference search.

    Long story short, I believe that search is going to go through a bit of an explosion of use cases, as social data becomes available, and various brand promises and value propositions are explored.

    Mixing social data in to the brand promise of reference search is just a bad idea, in IMHO… so in answer to the excellent question asked in the title of the article, “Has Google broken its promise to users?”, I think the answer is very much ‘yes’.

  7. M. Edward Borasky Friday, January 13, 2012

    The handwriting is on the wall. I’m rejoining Google+ because I seriously doubt there’s any way to get search traffic without having an account there. Sad, but, hey, it only cost me ten bucks for the Google Apps domain. :-(

  8. Great Post!many are turning to bing? hmm, ive not seen that even in stats yet. Wrong move by google definitely, But i guess it is also up to twitter and facebook to make the move, isn’t it? however, the whole social media thing coming into SEO is just for some time, that won’t work. @google – users are not ready to adopt that. Everyone is nostalgic about the neat clean results on google…that I think is the point from the consumer’s perspective.

  9. Reblogged this on quickgamer88.

  10. ….If FB or Twitter were in search would they show google + results ?
    No….or only if Google paid them to do this…We should break the illusion that any of these companies are on the side of the “Communities” that have given them value…The goal for most of them is to extract value from the community and redistribute this value in other directions…Maybe one day “Communities” will have the tools to turn pyramid right side up….

    1. Google’s stated mission had been to help organize the world’s information. Period. Twitter and FB are part of the world, last time I checked. If, however, Google wants to become a portal for only Google services – like Yahoo did, back in the day – then they should make that clear. At that point, then we will know whether to rely on Google for driving our audiences to us, and finding truly high ranking content – or if we just start using them like we did with Yahoo, for checking email and watching some videos every once in a while.

      Keep in mind also, while Google might give some professional, business or creative person 10x more exposure (for example), we also knew they would display ads that might take 10% of those eyeballs away from us. Our content not only helped people find us, but allowed Google to help people find someone else (and generate revenues for themselves). Given the overall numbers, this had been an acceptable exchange.

      But if Google is moving towards using our content to take the majority of those people away from us, and/or replace the experience and benefits we derived from having those people actually on our own sites (including our own ad revenues, subscribers and community development), with their own presentation layers, then the exchange might not be worth it.

      I read recently where authors and bloggers are finding their original content on Google search results listed below a Google+ page where that content had been recommended, even though they searched for the very specific title (keyword phrase) they themselves had created. In another example, I created videos for our company, used YouTube to host them, but embedded those videos in our own company site pages, where I could promote those pages to our audiences, and bring visits to us – so we could gain more customers. I have no problem with YouTube users finding them on YouTube, or with Google gaining ad revenues from my content and clicks from users on YouTube. But when I Google key phrases associated with that content, I find my company’s pages (where the video was embedded) a few links below the YouTube link. So, anyone searching for material on that topic, for which I produced a video intended to connect those people with our business, most of those prospective customers are now going directly to YouTube, where they can see that content, but not any of the related material or context or wanted them to see.

      So, Google. Keep it up. You’re only creating opportunity for another true search service to fill soon.

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