Back in 2004, Gary Stein suggested that Yahoo hire an ombudsman, a sort of impartial referee to handle disputes involving advertising programs. I thought it was a great idea. Today, Steve Bryant over at eWeek's Google Watch calls for Google to do the same thing. Again, great idea -- let's see the search engines all start hiring ombudsmen, in the way that many newspapers and others have done.
At a newspaper, the ombudsman is someone who the readers can appeal to if they feel a paper has been unfair or had a problem with coverage. The ombudsman investigates the complaint and reports back to the readers. As an insider, they have more access than an external investigator. But as the ombudsman, their responsibility is to represent the readers, not the organization.
Google's had a series of problems recently, as Bryant points out. Was Amazon accidentally knocked out on a search for its own domain name, or was it a glitch? Is Wikipedia Watch being deliberately downranked for a search on its own name, as founder Daniel Brandt feels, or is it another glitch?
An ombudsman is the sort of person who could investigate these things and report back. In fact, Google probably would need to employ a team of ombudsmen, given the many charges people point at it, often unfounded but still which need to be addressed.
Nor is Google the only one that should consider this. I don't agree with Bryant that Google is the closest thing we have to a Pope on the internet. But the idea of it being a paper of record is more true. But Google's not the only paper of record. Yahoo, MSN and Ask are all important papers, as well. I'd like to see them all establish ombudsmen.
At the very least, it will help take the pressure off the informal ombudsmen we already have -- Matt Cutts, Jeremy Zawodny and other search employees that often step up to do informal public relations and examinations of concerns. I don't want those bloggers to go away, but it would be nice to have an official person that searchers and publishers could feel are supposed to be looking into concerns.
Postscript: Google must temper its power or law makers will over at The Guardian has Jack Schofield talking about the idea of an ombudsman, as well.