Search Engine Objectivity

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2 Responses

  1. Great post, Mark; this really digs into the proposed remedy’s design. Your thinking echoes some of mine in Speech Engines (forthcoming in February). What users want is subjective, but the search engine’s own standardized assessments of what they want can provide an objective baseline from which to measure harmful or anticompetitive deviations. In the article, to keep the analysis to a reasonable length, I focus on suits by poorly ranked websites; I like your extension of similar ideas to competing services. And like you, I think that a remedy trying to protect competitors ultimately requires some kind of more general oversight of the organic search results. (This problem even bedevils Google’s settlement with the FTC.)

    I’m skeptical of the EU remedy for other reasons. Foundem makes a good point: because of the auction, many of the benefits of this system inure to Google. If you think the organic rankings are problematic because they promote Google over competitors, as the EU seems to, why not insist on modifying the organic rankings? Even if you use an auction or a pCTR to allocate slots on the results page as between competitors, then the revenue from that auction should not be flowing to Google, because the theory of inserting the links in the first place was that Google reaps an unfair advantage from control of the page. And shifting more of each results page from organic to paid does not strike me as being particularly pro-consumer.

  2. Mark Patterson says:

    Thanks very much for the comment, James. I do think our views have similarities, but they also have differences. They are similar, most importantly, in that we agree it is critical to have a baseline for assessing search engine performance. And we share, I think, a willingness to derive that baseline from Google itself. We differ, perhaps, in three ways.

    One is in what we expect from Google. You say in “Speech Engines” that Google “is free to establish its own criteria for measuring and describing quality.” I don’t think I agree, given Google’s power. I turn to Google for the baseline not because of any unwillingness to apply an external baseline, but because of an inability to identify one. That is, I think we can hold Google to its pCTR proposal not because it reflects the criteria that Google applies, but because it has represented the pCTR approach as “a means to evaluate the expected quality of a [link].”

    Two, I think we differ on in how specific a baseline must be. With your focus on the subjective user experience, I think you might require that a baseline be user-specific. I am willing to start from Google’s pCTR proposal, which I suppose could be user-specific but seems not to be, because the proposal refers to an “ad-query-site combination.”

    Third, I think we differ in what we would define as bad conduct. In “Speech Engines,” you would require “subjective falsity.” (I really like your explanation of how this explains the F.T.C.’s apparent purpose-based approach.) I would not. Instead, I think Google could be required to justify any way in which its results differ from those of the pCTR approach, which it has represented as an objective quality measure. Interestingly, I think we then have complementary problems. I’m not sure how I would respond to Google saying, “You know, we thought that pCTR approach was a good quality measure, but it isn’t. Sorry.” And I’m not sure how you would respond to Google saying, “Our criteria for measuring and describing quality have changed. We now comply with our new criteria (which could change any minute).” I think I’m happier with my problem, because I would be happier requiring Google to justify a change from what it previously said was objectively valid than in justifying a change from its own previous subjective views.