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The Coming Google Wars- in PageRank We Trust?

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

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Feb 10, 2006 3:02:00 PM

With the bloom coming off the rose, this season's favorite water-cooler game is predicting when and how Google will fall. The big story this past week was the banning and subsequent reinstatement of BMW.de from the Index Almighty for excessively aggressive search optimization techniques.

What appears as a victory for Google up close in fact presages what I believe to be one of their greatest long-term liabilities: the battle for placement. The value of getting your site in the top ten results for relevant keywords is large, and the top one or five, potentially enormous. And yet Google's herd of Ph.D.s goes on its merry way, bouncing sites up and down as they tweak. Companies as large as BMW play it philosophically, accepting PageRank as an impartial judge.

But for how long?

Google creates value by making value statements, by deciding that website A is more valuable than website B. A Google search on "Chevy Malibu," for instance, gives a link to consumer complaints about the car as the 8th result. Read those and tell me if you'd ever think about buying that car. Now tell me that GM will forever treat this as an immutable fact like the weather.

Does Google know that those postings are true? Does it present any context, to indicate whether those 25 complaints represent the average Chevrolet? Of course not, and to the average Internet technologist, the questions themselves probably sound insulting, like a television executive in 1980 asking Steve Jobs why people would spend $3000 on a typewriter hooked up to a black-and-white monitor that doesn't even show reruns of I Love Lucy. But if you're Chevrolet, the economic question is very real, and infinite variations of this issue are played out daily as the GooglePlex spits out results.

That the question hasn't stuck yet is a testament to the goodwill Google enjoys from the public at large, and the ignorance of the true value of placement among interested parties like General Motors. We, including the board of directors of BMW, trust that Google's results are truly the workings of a bunch of utterly disinterested mathematical formulae. But if you look atGoogle News, you'll find plenty of malcontents, including right-wing sites that think Google News favors extreme-left sources because Google employees donated lots of money to Democrats, and academic papers saying Google's algorithms unintentionally favor the right. This is just a foretaste of what's to come.

Simply put, you can't simultaneously be in the business of making value judgments, and at the same time escape the consequences of those judgments.

The Internet has evolved to its present state in a capitalistic Eden largely devoid of regulation and rent-seeking. But all such eras have come to an end one way or another. There is presently a strong move afoot by the cable and telephone companies to create a "tiered" Internet that discriminates between different types of content. Verizon is beginning to realize that people are using their $40 DSL lines to make free voice-over-IP calls to their friends in Europe, and Comcast is starting to notice that people like me are downloading our TV shows from iTunes and not subscribing to Cable TV. And needless to say, they don't like it. It's notable that Google is way out in front opposing this, and I'm glad they are. The question is whether Internet Exceptionalism has enough momentum to convert the rest of the public before the counter-reaction. If not, Google has more to lose than anyone.