Why Google Should Reveal Their Algorithm: Arguments For & Against

It seems that Google are yet again facing more pressure in Europe this week with concerns over their growing dominance in online markets and the handling of personal data in the wake of the US internet surveillance scandal.

In this scenario the German government has been criticising the search giant, claiming their algorithms are in fact skewed to hurt rivals and as a result are calling for the details behind them to be published to ensure transparency and accountability.

Google has immediately hit back, arguing that such transparency would potentially make the search engine a target of spam and would be tantamount to handing their business secrets out for free.

As news of the story reached the Coast Digital office a discussion arose between the team that quickly evolved into a debate in which it was clearly apparent that there were very different opinions from the industry experts involved. Various questions were being bandied around, such as:

Making Google’s entire algorithm public isn’t feasible, but perhaps an independent authority could audit it to appease both sides?

Maybe with Google’s dominance in online markets it is nearing the stage where they should be regulated?

We decided to share the thoughts of some of the team:

Darren Bond, Digital Strategy Director

“It was always only going to be a matter of time before governments step in and start regulating the digital giants (Google, Facebook et al). They have such a vast influence on how the world works as well as every person in it, that regulations will need to play a role somewhere along the line.

There is the Food Standards Agency, and FDA in the states. Just like food, the internet (in the UK anyway) is an essential part of life, and someone needs to make sure that it’s fair and equal for everyone involved.

Google could be the judge of that themselves and essentially they try to do that with organic search. The problem is that if they occasionally choose (when there’s vast amounts of profit to take from other businesses) to plant themselves/their services at the top, they can no longer be the judge of what’s fair and equal.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with regulation of search. It might help clean up our industry a bit.  It’s grown so quickly over the years that slow moving beaurocrats (like those at the EU) will never be able to keep up with it. Governments will need to think differently about how they regulate digital. They’ll need to begin making decisions as quickly as Google does. ”

Princely Bibi, PPC Specialist

“I’m all for industry regulation, but that is one step further. You can’t ask Google to hand over the keys to their business! No one has demanded Coca-Cola to publicise their secret recipe, so why should we demand it of Google?

Google is a service which nobody is forced to use. China did not want Google and as a result they’ve kicked them out. So if Germany does not want Google they can quite easily do the same, rather than ask them for their secret recipe.

When it comes to the search results where Google’s own services have prominence; well for me those results are not based on fairness, they are based on relevancy. So long as Google’s results are relevant and meet user needs, nobody can complain.”

Liam Shepherd, Social Marketing Specialist

“Both parties make good points. I understand that asking Google to publically share their search engine algorithm is unreasonable. That being said, I do believe that an independent authority should conduct a confidential audit on Google’s algorithm ensuring that their results are unbiased. This would be the simplest way to appease both sides.

I understand that Google’s success is entirely down to their own hard work and innovation, and that their search engine is very much their own product. Therefore if Google publically admitted that their search algorithms were in fact skewed to promote Google’s own services above others, regardless of quality or relevance, then that would be acceptable in my opinion. Businesses in competing industries would be able to invest their marketing budgets more wisely, instead of unknowingly spending them on a potentially impossible goal.

However whilst Google are continuing to claim that their search results are neutral and based purely on the quality and relevance of websites (even when it may theoretically mean promoting a competitor ahead of themselves), then they absolutely should be regulated to ensure that is remains the case.”

Mike Hall, Online Marketing Executive

“In my opinion search is a product that Google has built themselves, and have put a lot of effort into making it as popular as it has become. Therefore I don’t see why Google can’t give itself preferential treatment in its search results.

For me it’s no different to a journalist from an online publication, say Tech Crunch for example, giving his top 5 Smartphone’s. In his head there is a thought process, or an equivalent to an algorithm and he comes to that decision about what phone he wants to put on his website as the “one to buy”. The only difference between him and Google is his algorithm is in his head and Google’s is something more physical.

I would say Google shouldn’t be concerned with fairness to other businesses, because it’s their own product that they’ve made successful. I don’t think there should be a line where you’ve got this responsibility to be fair to everyone else. They can do what they want as far as I’m concerned.”

Paul Coffey, Production Director

“In my mind search is no longer part of Google’s competitive advantage. There are new answers for searches that you may wish to do. I don’t think that the competitive advantage Google has now is anything do with the clarity of their search results. I suspect that its ubiquity.

Google has won the race for clarity in search and I suspect now people could come up with search engines that are just as good, but the difference is they wouldn’t have the bulk that Google now has. They’ve tipped over from the point at which they’re part of a competitive market in where everyone is competing on a seemingly even playing field, that’s no longer their position. You could make a case for them being a cartel that control a very important space. It isn’t even about the clarity of the search anymore.

I definitely think regulation should be introduced. Unfortunately the nature of these markets at the moment is that they’re not fair, because digital advertising is not fair. Paid search, for example, is very much in the hands of Google and few others. Therefore it’s entirely healthy that the EU is pushing on Google, and even if it doesn’t get direct attention, yet it just shuffles it along and makes Google think about those issues and react to that pressure, then it’s a good thing.”

Samantha Knott, Email Marketing Specialist

“I can see it from both sides, although I’m more in favour of them being regulated. However done so securely so that their secrets aren’t given away, as I understand the importance of not publicising exactly how Google search works.

I think what they’re doing at the moment is potentially unfair to the competition, because right now they can get away with it. This is what regulation would resolve.”

Adrian Willings, SEO Specialist

“There has to be some control over monopolies, there always has been in the past with government regulation. Although asking them to lay out how their business works is unrealistic. If they confidentially revealed their algorithm to a government authority and that data was then not revealed publicly, I would be behind that. There is an element of Google dominating everything.

They have this “do no evil” philosophy, but whether they stick to it or not is debatable. On the other hand you can see their argument; if they released all the factors that affected their algorithm they would be spammed by people trying to manipulate it.

Google contradict themselves. They’re now incorporating a knowledge graph into search where you can get the information you need, without even going to another site! They also talk about how if your site takes from another site then you shouldn’t be ranking although Google steals stuff from Wikipedia and sticks it at the top.

I love Google as user, but as a marketer I see that they are shady and they are going to be a monopoly. I mean you’ve got Bing, but is that really any competition? And now you hear they’ve got 85% of the market share for Android too!

Ultimately, I’m in the middle. I think there is a happy medium between the two and I understand both sides of the argument.”

Which side of the fence do you sit, should Google be regulated? Let us know your opinion in the comments below.