Google and political campaign consulting

I was introduced today to Google’s Election and Issue Advocacy Team, a service designed to maximize the effectiveness of political advertising campaigns. Scott Brown’s successful Senate campaign made use of this service and paid Google’s AdWords program to ensure that Brown’s web page was the first sponsored link for any search on “Martha Coakley.”

According to what little I’ve read about this, Google offers this service to all comers. It’s a strategy that’s no doubt good for business, but one that I find disconcerting. First, Google holds itself out as a neutral purveyor of information. Should we still trust Google for its search results when it is taking money from political campaigns? Google would surely claim that its search engine is sacrosanct, and nothing would ever change other than sponsored advertising. Perhaps that’s true, but sooner or later Google will be asked otherwise tempted to tweak something in favor of a big, profitable client. Sure, that temptation might mean helping Ford over Toyota, and not Democrats over Republicans. But the very prospect of this infusing politics has, at the least, changed my opinion of Google for the worse.

Second, even if Google’s basic search results remain trustworthy, there’s the possibility that Google will now become a self-interested power broker in politics. Lawyer’s can’t represent conflicting interests because it compromises a lawyer’s independent judgment and increases the risk that confidential information will be either disclosed or used against a client. Doesn’t Google run into the same problem? Sure, Google says that it assigns different teams to clients on opposing sides of a campaign, but that is no different than the weak “Chinese wall” justification given by big law firms who want to play both sides of the street. People on “opposing” teams could easily talk about things over lunch, inadvertently disclosing information. And eventually, all teams report to someone who knows what is going on in both campaigns. That person at the top will wield considerable power. Might he or she be tempted to tip something in one direction in exchange for political favors in Google’s interest later on?

Third, Google has a lot of personal information about its account holders. Might Google not someday use that information to target ads about health care to people whose emails contain the words “health insurance” or “sick”?

Maybe this is a tempest in a pot of tea, and Google isn’t doing anything different than any other corporation or lobbyist trying to make money or gain political favor. Still, I can’t help but think that Google wields extraordinary influence over what people read and how easily they find things they want to read. Google already has financial incentives to warp what I read about its advertisers, but I guess I’m not that worried about the differences between mortgage companies or auto makers. I worry a lot more, however, when Google has incentives to influence what I read and think about those who hold elected office.

Google, Glenn Beck, and AP: Are Results Being Squashed?

So some of you may have heard that Glenn Beck has managed to upset advertisers by calling President Obama a racist. I don’t have much to say about Beck. I was more interested in the advertiser reaction. I saw the article on Yahoo! but wanted a more stable URL. So I copied the AP news story title and pasted into the Google. Here are the results.

google-search-beck-story

Notice how the results indicate that there are “365 related articles”? Usually I click that and indeed see a rack of articles. Today, however, this is what happened when I clicked on the link promising a cornucopia of news stories:

articles-results

Just one result! And it is only to AP page hosted by Google! (not sure whether Google is hosting all or most AP content, but it looks fishy). Maybe everyone was just running the AP story, but maybe those other outlets would have had more information of interest. Could it be that AP and Google are somehow in bed with each other on these results. (For all I know that is the case, and I missed that memo as I have been getting an article out the door and cleaning up a book chapter). Is this all part of AP’s claims regarding the ability to control its copy?

In short, watch the Google. It is creepy at times.

UPDATE: A quick commenter noted that the right side has a link that shows all the results “Sort by date with duplicates included.” THANKS!

I did not see that. Still I seem to recall that the related articles page used to have many of the redundant results. So the new approach could be helpful and efficient, but I wonder whether this new streamlined version of results applies to all news or just AP.

Furthermore, I throw open the idea that people may prefer the redundancies at the outset. That way they can go (as I did when I was on the web results page) to a source such as ABC or some other source one may trust or that one hoped would provide more than the AP coverage (be it vitriol over the boycott or praise for it).

Could Yahoo! + Bing = Death to Google?

informationsign2Yahoo! continues to be in the news as company that has lost its way. After failed merger problems, Yahoo has now sold its search business to the formerly evil and now oddly white knight(ish) Microsoft. It seems that Yahoo! and MS are now in a deal where MS’s Bing will power (and have some brand palcement) Yahoo!’s search. Others can go into the drop from about $46 billion to $4 or 5 billion sale price and other Yahoo! acts that make one wonder what the company is doing. For now, I want to remind folks about a little relationship called Yahoo! search powered by, wait for it, Google. Yes, Google. I wonder whether the G would be where it is today if Yahoo! had not given it that key placement. As one article pointed out

In a unique twist, Yahoo didn’t simply renew the deal for Google to be its “backup” partner, used only when Yahoo itself doesn’t have an answer. Instead, the company has embraced Google’s results even more tightly. Unveiled to the general public today is a new Yahoo search results page, where there is no longer a separation between Yahoo’s own human-powered listings and Google’s crawler-based results. Instead, the two are blended together.

Read the whole article for some fascinating perspectives on Yahoo! versus Google when Y was the big player. To be fair, Yahoo! appears to have had small chances to buy Google (but one might also say that after being apparently turned down for help by Yahoo!, the Google folks knew that they should not sell even at $3 billion). I for one don’t think I can say that Yahoo! should have known that Google was going to pop its IPO the way it did. For that matter had then CEO Terry Semmel bought Google, he would have had to take it public to show that it was worth the money. As Wired notes “Google’s revenue stood at a measly $240 million a year. Yahoo’s was about $837 million. And yet, with Yahoo’s stock price still hovering at a bubble-busted $7 a share, a $5 billion purchase price would essentially mean that Yahoo would have to spend its entire market value to swing the deal. It would be a merger of equals, not a purchase.”

So now we have the Yahoo! MS deal. It could be that Yahoo! is again running up the white flag about its ability to be a real technology/engineering company (“But now we have empirical evidence: At Yahoo, the marketers rule, and at Google the engineers rule. And for that, Yahoo is finally paying the price.”). But it may also be a way that MS will be able to grab Yahoo!’s customers, compete on search, and show that it still has the chops to beat back Google’s relentless drive to be all things to everyone. If so, maybe the two companies will balance each other out for a bit. Either way, it seems that as the NY Times pointed out, Yahoo! has exited the search game because as its CEO admits it cannot play in it at the level that MS and Google can (billions of dollars). Whether Yahoo! can find a new way to be relevant is another issue. The Times article describes Yahoo!’s severe dysfunction and what to me reads like classic Internet company arrogance. That being said, maybe Yahoo! is picking its best fight and with a little MS mixed in, Google will have to stay honest too. Or maybe this move is Yahoo!’s way of taking on Google while Yahoo! heads out of our world.

Googlebombing Pittsburgh?

Here in Pittsburgh, civic enthusiasts are so giddy over the prospect of the G-20 summit coming to town next Fall that that they just can’t help themselves.  A local marketing firm has announced that it is launching a campaign to create a network of links that would cause the Google search engine to reply “Pittsburgh” as the top result in response to the query, “The Best City in the World.”

At my local blog, I’ve called BS on this business, though not in precisely that way.  Sure, it’s a little bit of fun for the locals and Pittsburgh partisans everywhere.  But in part I’m exhausted by Pittsburgh’s insanely-insecure-and-desperate-for-validation “Sally Field” identity (“You like me!”).  And in part I think that this sort of thing — I’ll call it attempted Googlebombing, though some would parse that term in slightly different ways — has the potential to do real harm to what we might refer to as the commons of Internet search.

I’ll ask this audience, however, which I expect has little Pittsburgh sensitivity one way or the other, whether or not I’m on the right track with the latter point.

Below, Sally Field accepts her Academy Award for Places in the Heart:

Did You Clean Out Your Locker?: Yahoo Shuts Its Online Storage Service

Yahoo! is closing its online storage service Briefcase. According to CNET the service started about ten years ago. Now Yahoo! is telling customers that they have until March 30 to “to retrieve or delete their documents.” As some of you know, I have been writing about who owns material stored online. My piece, Property, Persona, and Preservation, argues that the creator of such material owns the work and that storage services do not. That being said, an online storage company should be able to provide a healthy amount of notice and then close its service as Yahoo! is doing here. The one thing that makes me wonder what Yahoo! is thinking is the word “delete.” Would Yahoo! claim that failure to retrieve or delete material means that Yahoo! owns the work? It might. Would the work stay around forever at Yahoo!? I doubt that. I think the best practice for Yahoo! is to encourage people to retrieve and delete their material and then state that after X date, all material will be deleted.

On a business note, Briefcase offered 30MB and Yahoo!’s statement about the closing–“usage has been significantly declining over the years, as users outgrew the need for Yahoo Briefcase and turned to offerings with much more storage and enhanced sharing capabilities,”–seems to support the move. Yet, the article also stated that Microsoft’s SkyDrive offers 25GB and the Google (yes the Google) is close to offering a similar product called GDrive regarding which the file text claims “provides reliable storage for all of your files, including photos, music and documents [and] allows you to access your files from anywhere, any time and from any device – be it from your desktop, web browser or mobile phone.” So why hasn’t Yahoo! offered a free upgrade? Is the Briefcase brand that weak (or non-existent)?

Put differently, if cloud computing, or as I call it, technologically mediated and stored creation persists as the way we create, why is Yahoo! moving away from this area? In addition, regardless of Yahoo!’s change, Microsoft and Google are pushing for this approach. That is part of why I wrote Property, Persona, and Preservation. A huge amount of our work continues to be outside our control. There are some great benefits to that change, but some serious problems with it too. The paper tries to look at how these changes affect access to knowledge and how we understand ownership of creations. If we don’t pay attention, we may find we lost our work because we forgot to clean out our locker or that someone cleaned it out for us.