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Google Fights Claims of Bias in Instant, Local Search

Danny Goodwin
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Google has been busy defending itself from accusations of bias in its local, organic, and paid results in recent weeks. Yesterday, Amit Singhal, Google Fellow and head of the company's search quality, ranking, and algorithm team, denied another common allegation: that Google Instant favors big brands.

"We didn't want to introduce any bias into the mathematical modeling--our modeling is predicting, given a letter, what's the probability of completion," Singhal told Fast Company. "Most people typing A are seeing Amazon, but that probability is predicting that most people typing A are going to complete to Amazon. If you type T, most people typing T will go to Target. That's the probability model. If you add R to it ("Tr"), most people are looking for a translation system. It's actually just pure mathematical modeling."

Brand Favoritism

Only hours after the launch of Google Instant in September, it became apparent that brands were a big part of the new search-as-you-type feature. Advertising Age even put together a list of the alphabet according to Google Instant, which showed that well-known brands like AOL, Bank of America, eBay, Staples, Target, and Verizon were getting top billing.

In October, Siddharth Shah of Efficient Frontier accused Google of brand bias:

"Of the 26 letters in the alphabet, 21 have brands as the first suggestions. Further, most of the other suggestions have brands too! If we are to accept Google's statement about the logic behind Google Instant's suggestions, most of us are searching for brands all the time."

However, comScore's Eli Goodman says that Google isn't pushing certain topics for financial gain. Goodman said "the system is not being gamed in any capacity" and comScore has not seen any instances of Google favoring certain topics for a financial benefit.

It wasn't a far leap to assume that Google prefers brands.

"Brands are the solution, not the problem," Eric Schmidt said in 2008. "Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."

Not long after, the Vince algorithm change hit in February 2009, and big brands were given a sudden rankings boost. Though, again, Google denied this was favoritism toward any individual brands.

"I don't think of it as putting more weight on brands. We really don't think about 'brands' in Search Quality that much," Google's Matt Cutts said. "It's not that we try to always return brands. We try to return whatever we think the best results are for users."

Google Favoritism

Singhal also said that "what we do at Google and what we've done for years is to not inject any subjectivity into these algorithms." That isn't true, however. Marissa Mayer has admitted that Google favored its own links for Google Finance and Google Maps.

In a recent report, Ben Edelman attacked Google's "use of hard-coding and other adjustments to search results gives Google an important advantage in any sector that requires or benefits from substantial algorithmic search traffic. By directing users to Google services, Google can make its offerings take off in a broad class of services -- be it health, finance, maps, video, travel, or otherwise. Any Google business that needs 'algorithmic' traffic can get it, free, in huge quantity."

In a Wall Street Journal article Sunday, critics from TripAdvisor.com, WebMD.com, Yelp.com and Citysearch.com all were given a forum to complain that they're losing traffic because Google favors itself and, as a result, is scooping up more advertising dollars.

Add this to the recent news that Microsoft-funded Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace was a key player in helping launch the EU's investigation of Google. Not shockingly, Microsoft also has joined the FairSearch.org coalition that opposes Google's acquisition of ITA.

In a blog post, Google said that the users comes first, not websites.

"Answering users' queries accurately and quickly is our number one goal. Sometimes the best, most relevant answer to a query is our traditional 'ten blue links,' and sometimes it is a news article, sports score, stock quote, video, or a map."

Google: The Only Constant is Change

As Lisa Barone points out, Google doesn't care about you, your business, or your website. She rightly says that it isn't Google's job to give you traffic, so you must seek out other ways to build your website/brand.

And as Frank Reed summed up in his excellent piece for Marketing Pilgrim:

"I am sure there are plenty of examples of search results that are perceived to be skewed but that happens to everyone. That happens to plumbers, lawyers, doctors, coffee shops etc everyday in the SERP's and guess what: it should. There are no squatter's rights in the search engines. They are earned and they are earned based on criteria. It's just like since not everyone can get into Harvard that doesn't mean Harvard is doing anything wrong, they are just doing it the way they see fit. Is it fair? That's not even important because it is impossible to be fair to everyone. Just get over that idea because it's not possible."

What do you think? Are Google's results best for users or Google? Should Google reward certain sites with high rankings? Should it demote its own properties?


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