There is no “search engine neutrality”

Greg usefully started the conversation on today’s NY Times Op-Ed by Adam Raff, founder of “foundem.co.uk,” a UK price comparison site, by asking, “What is search engine neutrality?” I was drafting a too-long post about this when I noticed Greg’s was already up, so thought I would shorten mine considerably. My short answer is to Greg’s question is: that’s easy, there is no such thing as search engine neutrality (and I don’t think anyone who isn’t pushing their own agenda thinks there should/could be).

I am not a technological determinist. I believe we can craft our technology to make it do what we want nearly all of the time (the major question often being who the “we” is, but I digress). But some things are excluded by definition and by the nature of what is being created.

Search engines have a job: to provide the people who use them “directions” (ie, a link) to the information they want. They do this by gathering information, analyzing it, rating it, and then “guessing” (ok, “educated guessing”) about what people are really looking for. Where a particular search returns lots and lots and lots of pages that are somehow related, the search engine has to discriminate among those that might fit. That is, it cannot be neutral.

So long as human beings cannot read, assimilate and analyze themselves all potential relevant pages (all at one time, mind you), we must rely on the search engine to prioritize them for us. When a search engine does that well, returning useful pages rather than spam or irrelevant pages, users will continue to use it. If it does this badly, returning tangential results or results that simply do not meet its users’ needs, users will seek another search engine. But it is not a question of being neutral or not being neutral. A search engine that was truly “neutral” would be worse than a search engine that wasn’t well executed and returned bad results among the good. It would be useless at doing what a search engine must do.

Raff might be trying to analogize Google’s actions to those of network operators who give a preference to content with which they are somehow affiliated. If he is, he’s done a bad job of making the connection (perhaps, as Greg notes, because of the shortness of the piece, but I think more cynically because it doesn’t suit his needs), and the logical extensions of the argument simply don’t work for the reasons I’ve noted. I agree that Google’s use of its search engine position to punish other online services would be troubling, and if it is pushing competing sites down its search engine rankings based on their potential to compete with Google, that is even more troubling. I don’t “trust” that Google is such a good company that this could not happen. But I also haven’t seen any serious evidence that it currently is. And Raff hasn’t even made a good argument that this applies in his case (some people are pretty sure this isn’t what has happened), and even if he had, why isn’t it a question of antitrust law rather than communications policy? Again, probably because that doesn’t suit Raff’s goals of trying to expand the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding to include this issue (even if it doesn’t fit).

Note: I would have posted this as a comment to Greg’s post, but I couldn’t figure out how to easily put links into the comment box.