June 13, 2012

Google search results are the “table of contents for a custom-made magazine”


Earlier this year, MobyLives wrote about a Google-commissioned report that characterized the tech giant as a publisher, for First Amendment purposes.

Now Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, outlines the increasing pressure Google is under to change the way it ranks search results and the reasons why it is beginning to argue internationally for editorial freedom.

He details the lobbying from a number of parties, including the chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, who predictably wants search results that favor legitimate sites and not piracy outfits. All of which is leading Google to define itself more and more like a publisher under siege.

“The RIAA’s argument is that Google’s search results are tantamount to a copyright infringement, like a magazine running a pirated short story within its pages. But of course, Google isn’t publishing the infringing material, it is reporting on the fact of its existence – like the Economist reporting on the existence of a pirated DVD stall at the Temple Street night market in Hong Kong. Even at its most ambitious, the RIAA wouldn’t dare to presume to demand that such a report be expunged from the Economist’s pages.”

In response to such demands, Google “implies that a page of search results is effectively the table of contents for a custom-made magazine that is assembled on the fly in response to a user’s query.”

As Professor Volokh argued in the aforementioned report, Google and other search engines continuously make decisions about what constitutes useful and relevant information — what is this if not editorial judgment?

Doctorow points out that there is an entire industry of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) built on the premise that you can work the Google code and get a high ranking, but Google has alway denied its effectiveness.

“Google’s official communiques tell the world that SEO isn’t necessary – so long as you “make great content”, you’ll get higher rankings. The implication is that Google has discovered a mathematical model of relevance…But there is no such mathematics. Relevance is a subjective attribute.”

EU competition regulators are now considering action to make Google be “search neutral” and stop giving preferential placement to its own services and sponsored links. Will Google end up arguing that such a move would be akin to asking The Telegraph not to put its own stories above the fold?

Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.