Has Google broken its promise to users?

There’s been a lot written about the benefits and disadvantages of Google’s new personalized search, which the web giant calls “Search plus Your World.” Some say they appreciate social results in their searches, while others say Google is just cluttering up its results with useless content, so they are turning to alternatives like Microsoft’s Bing. But as author Steven Levy notes in his analysis of Google’s new features, the real point is that by favoring results from its own Google+ social network over content from competing networks such as Twitter and Facebook, the company is dangerously close to reneging on its original promise to provide unbiased links to those searching for information.

Google has said that by offering its new personalized search, it’s trying to evolve from being just a search engine that ranks links between websites, and become one that “understands not only content, but also people and relationships.” That’s a valuable goal, but for now, the main source of those people and relationships — as far as Google search is concerned — is Google’s own Google+ network. That may make some people like photographer Thomas Hawk happy, because they use the Google network a lot, but others are not as impressed. And according to a report from Bloomberg on Friday, the search company’s behavior has already attracted the attention of antitrust regulators in Washington.

Why are Twitter results being excluded or downgraded?

Among the most vocal critics of the move is Twitter, which has complained that Google is deliberately favoring its own Google+ results over those from other networks. The search giant’s response was that Twitter could have renewed a deal to provide its content to Google via an API — a deal that the two sides had for some time — but chose not to (sources say the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on price). Not everyone buys this argument, however: Alex Macgillivray, a former senior legal counsel at Google and now general counsel at Twitter, has scoffed at the suggestion that it was somehow Twitter’s fault, saying:

In the Google I knew, you didn’t have to have a deal for your stuff to be considered relevant.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over whether Google could display more Twitter content or Facebook content even if it wanted to, with chairman Eric Schmidt arguing the company is loath to do so without an arrangement with either company. Others have debated whether the “rel=nofollow” tag Twitter adds to its links (something Google’s rules require) is a reasonable response, as well as why the search giant doesn’t index the @ symbol, which Google staffer Matt Cutts has said in the past was a result of not wanting to collect email addresses.

But those questions are beside the point in many ways. The crucial point, as John Battelle notes in his piece on the subject, is that Google appears to be turning its back on the statement it made to investors and the world when it went public in 2004. In the prospectus it released at the time, the company promised that its results would be purer and therefore more useful than some of its competitors, saying:

Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

Google continues to maintain that its results are unbiased

Plenty of companies have changed their minds about things they said in their IPO documents, especially after seven years or more — but Google has never once said it planned to deviate from that statement. In fact, as recently as last fall, Eric Schmidt told a Senate committee that was holding a hearing into allegations of unfair competition that Google’s results were not “cooked” to promote its own products. But how else are we to interpret what happens when you search for content with the new personalized features turned on? Google+ results are given prominence in every respect.

Matt Cutts has argued that these results show content from other networks as well, but there is virtually nothing from Twitter or Facebook, even when someone is clearly looking for a Twitter bio or profile page (both of which should be open to indexing). And Levy says by doing this — whether because Google wants to promote its own social network, or because it wants to apply pressure to Twitter or Facebook to open up their data — the search company is taking a fairly substantial risk:

When using its algorithmic wizardry to deeply integrate social information into its search experience, it behooves Google to avoid even a whiff of bias. With SPYW, though, the odor is unmistakable.

Even search expert Danny Sullivan, who has defended Google numerous times in the past from allegations that it gives its own services preferential treatment, says that what the company is doing with Google+ is unlike anything else it has done before, and that this is a “disturbing” move for the company to make. Instead of just providing links to sources of information, Google is giving content from its own network more prominence, which Sullivan says that is “unprecedented in my time covering the company.”

As we’ve mentioned before, this could easily draw the fire of antitrust regulators who are already on Google’s case. But it’s not just regulators that Google should be afraid of; it should also be careful not to turn its back on users, who have come to expect one thing from the search giant and are now getting something else entirely.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Ditatompel

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