Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Further Comments about the Online Search Blog Symposium from Marvin Ammori

Posted by Marvin Ammori

Thanks so much to Daniel for hosting this wonderful online symposium.

I want to just clarify the two aspects of Google critics' search neutrality arguments.

First, some suggest Google does or could demote the search placement of particular companies. Mark Patterson asks us to speculate that Google might deliberately decide to demote particular sites. Foundem in the UK claims that Google "punished" Foundem in search rankings because Foundem competes with Google. (As noted in our conference paper, some point out that Foundem had won some awards, others have responded that Foundem is evidently a spammy site that does not follow basic search engine optimization.) Patterson suggests we need to see Google's algorithm because perhaps Google engineers might target a site.

Second, some criticize Google's move, in 2007, from ten blue links on a display page to displaying results in a "universal search" display that includes results from Google News, Google Maps, Google Places, and Google Travel. Google claims that it can better organize results for users and attempt to compete and do search better than competitors; competitors argue that Google is advantaging its specialized properties through dominating general search.

The disclosure remedies might be the most sensible of all those proposed, but they are based primarily on conjecture. Regarding the "demoting" of sites, there is very little evidence that Google actually does this. Foundem is the main example--and Google rebuts that minimal evidence with the credible argument that Foundem is not worthy of better placement. Patterson, in his thoughtful summary post, merely proposes a hypothetical, rather than marshaling any real evidence. Regarding the "promotion" of Google Travel and Google News and Google Maps, disclosure has no effect because nothing is hidden. Everyone can see that Google has moved to "universal search"--and that so has Microsoft's Bing. Google can credibly argue that it has a pro-consumer reason for the four-year old change, but nobody can credibly argue that Google is hiding the fact.

Even if Google engineers were targeting Foundem, the government's ability to define a search neutrality standard (see Grimmelmann) and to implement the remedy (see my paper with Luke Pelican) make me skeptical that the remedies proposed so far, beyond the disclosure resting on conjecture, would actually further consumer welfare, competition, and innovation in search.

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