Europe searches for democracy in Google algorithm

I’ve never quite understood how the European Commission has powers to beat up the likes of Microsoft and Google for their monopolistic products.

When we exported David Beckham to the LA Galaxy soccer club, there were no demands from a Congress hearing to release the secret code for superstar branding.

Now Google is in the Brussels dock on charges of unfairly downgrading the rank of competitors in its search results and keyword advertising.

One of the companies bringing the case is owned by a familiar name, Microsoft. Just a couple of weeks ago European regulators gave the go-ahead for a deal with Yahoo, in which Microsoft’s Bing technology will take over the Yahoo search engine. It all smacks of bitter commercial rivalry as much as fair competition.

I concede a degree of unease at my own dependence on Google. I would prefer not to disclose how many of its free software tools support the publication of OneWorld Guides, both up front and behind the scenes.

And like almost every website manager the world over, I am convinced that the company discriminates against our product in those crucial top ten search results. All sorts of trash feature ahead of our impeccably rich content.

More seriously, the research component of my work affords me grounds for suggesting that Google search technology is not at its best with keywords relating to international development and environmental justice.

This is partly our own fault for the terminology we have adopted to describe our work. “Development” and “adaptation” are examples of lazy jargon which has very different meanings for the majority.

The more worrying reflection from my experience is that Google’s suspect performance in our field is nevertheless streets ahead of the other search engines. This week’s example is the topic of climate change in Mozambique, a very worrying subject which doesn’t attract sufficient attention.

Slogging though the top 100 results on Google I reckon there were over thirty which merited a look, including seven out of the first ten. Over on Yahoo and Bing, these counts were down by a factor of three. And I couldn’t find a custom date option on Bing.

If forcing Google to release their coveted ranking algorithms means that we have to dumb down to the quality of the other search engines, then I’m not in favour.

And whatever the gripes about the positioning of our Guides, there is comfort for small publishers like OneWorld in those impersonal algorithms. We’re all in there with an equal chance.

Allowing human intervention to fine tune the positioning would be an invitation to bullying tactics by powerful companies. The status quo seems about right. The big spenders can after all buy visibility through Google’s AdWords service.

This is where I do have some concern. Google has been naughty in diminishing the visual signals which distinguish “sponsored results” from those that are genuine. There is some anecdotal evidence that adverts get better click-through responses than the organic listings.

This should worry Google because it implies that the search results are less interesting than the adverts. If the core product becomes weak, then the advertising model falls over.

It’s encouraging to read that Google recognises its shortcomings. A key staffer, Amit Singhal, blogged to confess that “search isn’t quite out of its infancy yet.”

If the European Commission really represents the interests of consumers, it should keep more of an eye on protecting the quality of these organic results than on the grumbles of Google competitors.

Meanwhile I indulge in our version of Google’s free Custom Search tool. It applies Google’s technology to search the content of OneWorld Guides.

We always come top in the results.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK