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The conflict of interest that is Google

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I post about this issue every once in a while because it seems to me to be such an obvious issue of concern, and yet doesn't seem to get much attention.

Google is *the* search engine of choice for much of the world -- and there is an absolutely fevered pitch and entire industry devoted to getting results at the top of the results returned by google for any given search.

While google boasts about being neutral in terms of how they rank results, increasingly, as google expands its business to every product line and industry, they are inserting their own products into their search results in order to promote their other products.

Here's there latest from :

Thanks to a tip from Stuart we learned Google Health is now being integrated into health search results. For instance, if you Google search "hay fever," the top search result is Google Health. The health content is provided by A.D.A.M., an online provider of health content that is physician reviewed for consumers. Taking the number one spot for themselves, Google is making their move to be the source where consumers get their online health information and potentially dominate health search. I guess if you're Google, organic search results are whatever you want them to be.
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There is a huge incentive for google to rank the results it returns in order to favor products it is involved in, and pages on which it serves ads (and thus profits from sending people to websites that use their ads).

This has just about reached the breaking point for me.  The bottom line is that I no longer believe that google can be trusted to return results that are most likely to be what i am searching for, but rather the results and rank of information displayed are being leveraged to further their market share.

This has just about reached the breaking point for me.  The bottom line is that I longer believe that google can be trusted to return results that are most likely to be what i am searching for, but rather the results and rank of information displayed are being leveraged to further their market share.
-mouser (May 01, 2010, 06:27 PM)
--- End quote ---
i agree completely.  I also ranted about this just recently around here.  I was talking about how you can't really find the right thing in Google anymore, unless you know exactly what you want.  But if you know exactly what you want, what's the big benefit of google.  I find I use google more along the lines of a spell checker than a true engine.  For example, if I don't know if it's or, i'll just search for espn on google and go the the right site from there.  but in that case, what did google really help with?  I knew it was espn, so i was already 99% of the way there.  But if you were to search for "sports news" and it gave you espn on top, then google helped.  That was a poor example because sports news does go to espn, but that's obvious.  but if you searched for normal things, google is not that helpful.  you'll get a ton of nonsense sites that are purely seo optimized websites with vomit-worthy content.

Google has become the very thing that made google Google in the first place.  That's funny...

I disagree in terms of search results; I still find Google gives pretty relevant results in most cases, and certainly as good as or better than other search engines. I think any failing in its searchers is largely due to people trying to game the system. It's in Google's best interest to provide you something that is relevant to your search (ideally, of course, something that they also make money off of - but relevancy is still more important because without that you won't click). So it doesn't make much sense that they'd be intentionally skewing their search results so far in favor of commercial interests that they'd be losing relevancy compared to other search methods. They'd be stabbing themselves in the foot. I've seen a lot of comparisons of Google and other search engines, especially recently with Bing as a heavy competitor, and in the worst case it's a tie with Google, seldom if ever is Google soundly beaten in what is still its core strength.

As for the promotion of its own results, I agree that this is worrisome and a bit unprecedented as far as I know. What I'd like to see is perhaps an additional highlighted "non-organic search results" area, similar to ads, that shows "recommended content". Then, just as with the ads, those of us who don't trust Google's "recommendations", can ignore it and just look at the top search results. This approach would I think be most in keeping with past behavior.

However I'm not entirely convinced that Google isn't just using its own algorithms on its own content to determine relevancy. It's entirely possible that Google's page on hay fever is just full of more relevant content than any other page. Take "flu" for example. You'd think Google Health might come up tops for that too; it comes up at the top for "common cold" and "eczema". But not for flu. It's that takes the top spot. Google Health *does* have a page on Flu, but it doesn't show up in their search results in the 5 pages I checked, and a search engine ranking tool I tested it on said it wouldn't come up at all. Odd, but lending credence to the possibility that it may be an organic ranking. Perhaps there is simply so much other info about the flu out there that ranks higher, that Google's just doesn't show up. Entirely possible given the recent flu hysteria. Then again I can't find any other terms listed in Google's full topic index: where Google Health is not the top result, but then I only tried a few of the ones in the A section. ;)

Thinking about this further, if you take a look at the actual search results for these terms, it does highlight Google Health, but with almost equal ranking (second horizontally on a list at equal level), you have links to the Mayo Clinic and more. Additionally if you visit the actual page it's almost more of a "meta" thing, with a brief description and then links to lots more resources. More of a "topic" in the search engine that is a dedicated page for more jumping off points. This is arguably a simple enhancement to the search service. In fact Bing is already doing this, and I think has been for longer than Google:

The search:
the first result brings you to this page:

Notice Mayo Clinic, and the page has ads all over it (2 at top and a whole bunch down the side), whereas Google's has zero ads (unless you consider the Medline link on the left to be an ad). So I'm starting to wonder, where is the profit motive for Google? Especially when you compare to what Bing is doing. In fact, once again it seems like Google is doing what another engine is doing, but better and cleaner, with less commercial crap. Kind of turns this whole thing on its head...

Also interesting is that if a search result matches for a Google Health topic, you can visit it without having an account. But if you simply visit you are asked to sign up with your Google Account, indicating it's more about the health records than general health info.

- Oshyan


let me see if i can convince you of where i think you are making a mistake in your reasoning.

You say:
It's in Google's best interest to provide you something that is relevant to your search
--- End quote ---

I think this is generally right.. Or rather, i agree that ONE of their main interests is in providing results that you find more useful than the results from the competing search engines.

If they started returning completely ridiculous results that were clearly all about advertising and no real content, and if their results reallllly became obviously bad, they would be shooting themselves in the foot because people would *eventually* stop using google, despite all of the innate forces of momentum and reputation that help preserve their marketshare.

However, companies are rarely ever so stupid as to leverage their monopolistic or other advantages to this extreme that would obviously drive away customers.  Instead, they simply use their incestuous relationships and leverage and marketshare to put their fingers on the scales a little, enough to make a huge profit without scaring away customers.

Consider this hypothetical thought experiment:
Somewhere in google labs the people trying to improve search do a study and find out that academic pages and pages without advertisements are much much more relevant to almost every search than pages with ads.  And furthermore, that this is especially true for health issues, mortgage and finance and loan issues.  The solution is obvious, penalize the ranking of pages with ads on them.  The researchers running the study propose the change to the google search algorithm, and note that this change will make the google results more relevant and useful to people, but will cost google about 100 million dollars a day in ad revenue.  Now you tell me what you think the google corporation board of directors, etc. would say about this proposed change?  you think they would welcome it with open arms, or you think they would find a way to justify not implementing it?  I suggest the answer is hell no they wouldn't implement that change -- not at long as google doesn't have a viable competitor that people would switch to if they didn't.

This is the conflict of interest that happens when you are a company making oodles money when people visit certain sites and not others.  And it's even worse when some of those sites that you have an interest in sending people to are sites you own that make you even more money if you drive traffic to them.  It's true that google has an incentive to produce "relevant" results, but they also have a very high incentive to promote their own pages and products, and send people to pages with google ads on them.  Two incentives that conflict.. otherwise known as a "conflict of interests".

Yes, Google has a profit motive, no doubt about it. That's part of being a publicly traded company in this economy. What is interesting and - I think deserves recognition - about Google is that they do a pretty good job most of the time of balancing the profit with the information and quality of service. More often than not when I see someone pointing the finger saying Google is doing something purely or even largely for profit, when I look at it, it just doesn't seem that way if you consider the whole picture and all evidence. Particularly in this case if you notice the fact that there are no ads on those pages, and compare that to Bing.

If nothing else, Google may not be "as good as it could be", but in most cases it's a lot better than anyone else still, and that's unfortunately all we can expect a lot of the time. Though we can hope for more. :D

- Oshyan


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