Search neutrality: Google and Danny Sullivan weigh in

July 16th, 2010

Web search guru Danny Sullivan has a great response to the NYT editorial on regulating search engine algorithms: The New York Times Algorithm and Why It Needs Government Regulation. Here’s how it starts:

“The New York Times is the number one newspaper web site. Analysts reckon it ranks first in reach among US opinion leaders. When the New York Times editorial staff tweaks its supersecret algorithm behind what to cover and exactly how to cover a story — as it does hundreds of times a day — it can break a business that is pushed down in coverage or not covered at all.”

Google published its own response to the Times piece as a Financial Times op-ed and also posted it to the Google public policy blog: regulating what is “best” in search?

“Search engines use algorithms and equations to produce order and organisation online where manual effort cannot. These algorithms embody rules that decide which information is “best”, and how to measure it. Clearly defining which of any product or service is best is subjective. Yet in our view, the notion of “search neutrality” threatens innovation, competition and, fundamentally,your ability as a user to improve how you find information.”

The penultimate paragraph gives what they say is their strongest argument againt mandating “search neutrality”.

“But the strongest arguments against rules for “neutral search” is that they would make the ranking of results on each search engine similar, creating a strong disincentive for each company to find new, innovative ways to seek out the best answers on an increasingly complex web. What if a better answer for your search, say, on the World Cup or “jaguar” were to appear on the web tomorrow? Also, what if a new technology were to be developed as powerful as PageRank that transforms the way search engines work? Neutrality forcing standardised results removes the potential for innovation and turns search into a commodity.”

This assumes of course, that there is real competition among Internet search engines. Microsoft has been putting a lot of research and development into Bing with good results and it’s been gaining market share. Yahoo is doing very interesting this as well. Consumer choice among a handful of competitors would be the best way to ensure that none abuse their customers.