[re-search] Questions for Google

Jürgens, Pascal pascal.juergens at uni-mainz.de
Tue Jan 21 10:10:42 CET 2014

Dear all,

as promised, here is a brief summary of what we learned in our exploratory talks with Google.

A bit of background: We are part of a research project on search engines (SE) spanning education scholars (media literacy), lawyers (regulation) and mass communication (search engine research) disciplines. After several empirical studies and a detailed analysis of the german legal framework, we came to the conclusion that

(a) search engines in general but Google in partucilar have gained increasing potential for influencing users. Individualized (personalized) results represent a quantitative shift here, possibly marking a departure from the model of SE as passive information brokers,
(b) the current legal framework does not allow for any political movement towards regulating search engines, however,
(c) taking the foundational principles (es. the spirit of constitutional and media law) into account, some sort of regulation is becoming increasingly likely/necessary
(d) in light of the difficulties arising from the regulation of an international corporation, an increased focus on search engine literacy might help mitigate SE power

When they learned of the results, Google understandably got curious and invited us to talk about the study. (Disclaimer: We did not receive any money. There was no compensation and Google did not pay any expenses.)

As expected, a lot of time was spent explaining the different approaches and methods of the study as well as Google's own perception of the issues. Out of our and your questions, we only managed to discuss a selected few. Here's what might interest you:

Google's own perception of competition and market power

Google did stress that because of search's decreasing relevance in the information flow, they don't consider themselves to be a monopoly or even in a market dominating position. Furthermore, they insisted that they need to retain a minimum of high-value traffic (shopping, currently at ~20%) so they can keep subsidizing the unprofitable 80% of searches.

Regarding the age-old question of whether a SE is a neutral information broker or a content owner who's responsible, we didn't get to a satisfactory conclusion. Google didn't want to commit to either perspective (looking back, they rarely did). Apparently, in order to claim free speech protection in the US, it needs to claim some sort of authorship of the content. That would have very interesting implications, but I am not a lawyer so take this with a grain of salt.

How the algorithm gets changed
This was pretty interesting: They have around 2 changes to the search algorithm per day. Each change goes through a series of verification steps. For some changes, a panel of paid external judges is called upon for evaluation of the result quality (!). So they do have some qualitative/quantitative assessment that involves humans. Additionally, as we already know, they make heavy use of A/B testing (more than 10'000 test per year).

Interestingly, they stressed that any slowing down of changes in the algorithm would severely hamper their ability to keep up with misuse. If you think about that, this means that Google seems to be fighting attacks with the speed that security companies fight malware.

The future
As expected, most people from Google (especially those from market research) were absolutely bored by search and much more focused on mobile, voice search and cross-integration with additional search services (maps etc.). In this regard, we as a field are probably behind 3-5 years and I honestly am not sure how we can approach the upcoming changes to user behavior. Researching multi-platform and mobile behavior is really hard.

We also briefly talked about media literacy. Google is involved with a lot of initiatives to teach computer/internet skills, usually in cooperation with existing NGOs. The separation of interests seemed alright, but personally I'd still be sceptical of private-sponsored education campaigns (that's probably a very German reluctance).

All in all, the atmosphere was very friendly and open-minded, which allowed for some true exchange of opinions. They did went out of their way to get together people from a lot of different areas, which was very productive. Still, to me it became clear that the company's positions and public positioning regarding these issues are thoroughly and carefully crafted and not likely to change quickly. Google is not (no longer?) a company that is open, quick or emotional about the discourse regarding their role in society. They probably can't be, simply due to their exposed position. On the plus side, we as academics are definitely received as openly as possible, but within limits.

Thanks again to all of you who provided questions last week. There were some excellent ideas among them!
I hope this brief report was of some interest to you,

all the best from Germany,

Pascal Jürgens M.A.
Tel. +496131/39-25638
Research Associate, Dept. of Communication
U of Mainz, Germany

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