Google is widely recognized as the top search engine in the world. Though no one knows quite how, the site consistently positions itself as the most definitive source for computer users looking to find out more about a specific topic.
But what if the results you see on Google’s search engines were biased in some way?
That’s the charge that was made recently by Jeffrey Katz, the CEO of online shopping comparison site Nextag. In an opinion editorial piece he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Katz contended that by analyzing traffic coming to his site from Google, he knows for certain that the search engine tweaks its algorithms in an effort to penalize its competitors, including Nextag. Katz claims that because Google incorporates what is known as “paid inclusion” in its search results, it now more closely resembles a commerce site rather than an objective search engine.
However, Google quickly and forcefully responded to Katz’s allegations on its own Public Policy Blog. What’s more, Google appears to be putting its money where its mouth is: by openly encouraging users to visit other search engines if they are not satisfied with Google’s results.
Amit Singhal, Google’s Senior Vice President of Engineering, denied Katz’s assertions and said that Google never allows its paid advertisements to affect its search results. Although it does accept paid ads, Singhal notes that such “commercial experiences are clearly labeled and distinct from the unpaid results,” which he claims is in stark contrast to most shopping comparison sites (he didn’t mention Nextag specifically, but the inference was clear).
Singhal went on to say that by year’s end, Google will completely separate its product search results from those returned for non-commerce topics. These product-related entries will be categorized under a new Google Shopping banner in an effort to better serve the needs of e-commerce shoppers.
In the blog post, Singhal emphasized that all of Google’s actions are motivated by what users ultimately want, not by commercial, advertising, or asset tracking objectives. The algorithms implemented by Google for its search engine are closely guarded; however, Singhal did reveal that the company makes over 500 changes to these algorithms every year in order to improve user experiences – not to channel search requests to websites. To support this point, Singhal noted how many Google searches now lead users to a factoid, map, or weather forecast instead of a traditional website – or even simply give a short answer on the search engine itself. (As an example of this, typing “capital of Missouri” into a Google search bar simply gives you a notification of “Jefferson City” at the top of its list of results.)
But the most interesting part of Singhal’s response was his invitation to compare Google against its competition. In fact, he even went so far as to provide links in his actual post
to competitors Yahoo!, Bing, Google Minus Google, and DuckDuckGo. Singhal closed by identifying what he believes is the best aspect of the Internet: the ability of users to navigate to another site if they don’t find what they are looking for from Google or anyone else.
There’s no denying that Google is exhibiting impressive chutzpah with its “love us or leave us” attitude in its response to Katz’s accusations. Perhaps the next question is whether Internet users will actually take him up on his offer – and whether it will shift the balance of power in the search engine competition.