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July 18, 2006

The ‘Idiots’ Have Some Learning To Do

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Eric Schmidt says Google is run by a bunch of idiots. Idiots? Really? Well, I’d have to respectfully disagree with Eric there. I think the Google guys are pretty smart. However, like all younglings, Google does have some things to work out if Eric, Larry and Sergey want to avoid spending the rest of Google’s life in the courtroom.

Eric recently told reporters Google has something like twenty obvious problems. Twenty? I’m not a giant search engine and even I have more problems than that.

Regardless, I hope one of the twenty or so problems Google is working on is figuring out how to become more transparent without sacrificing the Google way of life. If recent court cases are any indication, Google needs to start showing a little more good faith to users. Packs of aspirin are nice and make for fun Friday blog chatter, but at the end of the day, what users would really like to receive in the mail is more information regarding Google’s systems.

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, a federal court judge dismissed KinderStart’s claim that Google unfairly lowered their PageRank and was guilty of “monopolistic business practices”. However, Google’s KinderStart troubles are far from over. The child-focused search engine has until Sept. 29 to clarify and strengthen its claim that Google is guilty of defamation for dropping them to a PageRank 0.

But right now even the threat of that lawsuit is moot. The value of the KinderStart case was that it highlighted Google’s self-inflicted vulnerabilities and exposed their continued spreading of conflicting information.

The judge in the KinderStart case explained (via Eric Goldman):

“Google’s statement as to whether a particular website is "worth your time" necessarily reflects its subjective judgment as to what factors make a website important. Viewed in this way, a PageRank reflects Google’s opinion. However, it is possible a PageRank reasonably could be interpreted as a factual statement insofar as it purports to tell a user "how Google’s algorithms assess the importance of the page you’re viewing.” This interpretation would be bolstered by evidence supporting Google’s alleged representations that PageRank is "objective," and that a reasonable person thus might understand Google’s display of a ‘0’ PageRank for Kinderstart.com to be a statement that ‘0’ is the (unmodified) output of Google’s algorithm. If it could be shown, as KinderStart alleges, that Google is changing that output by manual intervention, then such a statement might be provably false.”

Many viewed KinderStart as SearchKing, Round Two. They saw Google forced back into the courtroom arguing that its algorithm is subjective; a mere opinion it offers about the sites in its index. An innocent opinion? Sure. Tell that to the mass of SEOs and site owners who keep constant tabs on their PageRank, even though Google claims it accounts for very little. Everyone knows, on the Internet, Google’s word is law.

Based on the judge’s assertion, it looks like even the court system is on to Google. At least this judge didn’t seem to take to Google’s apparent duplicity when it comes to describing PageRank and its algorithm. Google claims its PageRank and algorithm are subjective and that users know that. I disagree.

Many users don’t consider Google’s all-powerful algorithm subjective. Why? Because they’ve read Google’s Technology page. [Emphasis added.]

PageRank Technology: PageRank performs an objective measurement of the importance of web pages by solving an equation of more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms.

PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. Important pages receive a higher PageRank and appear at the top of the search results. Google’s technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance. There is no human involvement or manipulation of results, which is why users have come to trust Google as a source of objective information untainted by paid placement.

So what is it? Subjective? Objective? A contradicting combination of the two? And what about that line regarding no human involvement? SearchKing showed us that wasn’t true, as have recent, very public instances of Google’s “hand-editing jobs”.

Maybe Google just needs to update an outdated Technology page, but until they do, you can’t fault users for believing what Google clearly states.

If Google wants to avoid the courtroom there’s a few things they need to do:

  • Update all site information – The only thing worse than giving people no information, is giving them conflicting or incorrect information. Google needs to take a look at its site, figure out what is still relevant and what information is just misleading. If Google no longer gives PageRank any merit, why is it still listed on their site? If Google can’t provide users with the correct information, who can?
  • Give users a group of ombudsmen – Several people have brought this up lately and for good reason. Users need help, and frankly so does Matt. Matt Cutts is a Senior Google Engineer. He’s not their entire public relations department. Users need a group of Google employees they can turn to with basic questions regarding Google and personal site issues. A timely Google customer service line could save everyone a lot of headaches.
  • Start erring on the side of transparency – Users are demanding more information and it is in Google’s best interest to give it to them. This stretches from giving users basic information about its algorithm to details about what Google is doing to prevent click fraud. SearchKing and KinderStart may be dead in the water, but eventually users and the court system are going to grow tired of Google’s misinformation and they’re going to get hit. The mystery behind Google’s algorithm may have once been alluring, but today it’s merely a source of user frustration.




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