February 6th, 2006

Google Orwellian

by

Google is powerful — and we all learned from Orwell that power corrupts. As to search, Google has near total power — will total power totally corrupt Google?

Ask BMW, whose SEO strategy violated Google’s “orthodoxy,” leading Google to unceremoniously excommunicate BMW’s German website from its “organic” search results. The BBC reported this action as a “death penalty.”

Google controls a huge percentage of the traffic flow on the Internet — and it has annoited itself judge, jury, and executioner for anyone who violates its “quality guidelines.” As Alexander Muse puts it:

No trial, no jury – just death… Sorry guys!

It’s one thing for Google to tweak its algorithms to lower the search ranking of sites they perceive to be “gaming the system” (although even this is Big-Brotherish) — it’s quite another to summarily reduce a company’s page rank to zero.

You could argue that Google has searchers best interest in mind, but when you smell the stench of “orthodoxy,” you have to ask yourself — is Google’s unchecked power really serving its users well, or is it being blinded by its own definition of “right” and “wrong” in the struggle to get noticed online.

Alexander had a rather chilling update to his post:

Update: Brian IM’d me that he was worried Google would zap our pagerank for writting this post. WOW! He was seriously concerned. Are you concerned too?

Is Publishing 2.0 at risk for this display of dissent? How far down the slippery slip does Google have to slide before they start Stalinistically stamping out dissent?

We might be inclined to trust Google’s technology — algorithms do what they are programmed to do — but can we trust the corruptible human intelligence behind those algorithms, which may be tempted to take their power to unfortunate extremes? Will history repeat itself in the politics of online information flow?

Matt Cutts, Google’s enforcer of search orthodoxy, turned off comments for his blog post on BMW — stamping out conversation — not a good omen.

Add this to the China censorship fiasco.

Paging George Orwell.

UPDATE
Google has competitors, so their power is not “total.” BMW got what they deserved and won’t really suffer in the long run. Google had no choice but to crack down on BMW because they would have been damned if they didn’t. Google is trying to help sites from running afoul of their rules. Other search engines do what Google does. It’s implausible that Google would ever exercise any kind of overt retribution. And it’s not like Google is the Government. There are other things going on in the world that are truly “Orwellian.”

Valid points all. But somehow I find little consolation.

If you’re absolutely certain there isn’t — or could ever be — anything amiss here, then you should sleep well at night. I won’t try to keep you awake. Sweet dreams. Good night.

I’ll be up re-reading Animal Farm:

“We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of the farm depend on us. Day and night, we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples.”

UPDATE #2
Man, talk about “overheated rhetoric.” The opportunity to observe the spirited, even angry defense of Google is well worth the heat I’m taking for the conceit of this post. (And it was a conceit — it struck me as Orwellian, so I tried playing it out — I guess some thought experiments are inherently dangerous.)

BMW’s SEO was spam, and spam is evil, so Google’s actions are righteous, and how dare you suggest otherwise.

If it’s so wrong to suggest that there’s something creepy about all this, then dismiss it out of hand and move on — why take time out for all the righteous outrage?

The righteous defense of Google makes this all feel more Orwellian, not less.

Seriously, I’d love nothing more than to be wrong about this — I would sleep better at night. But I’m not about to start trusting Google unquestioningly.

When a company’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” that’s aspiring to truly awesome power. And the notion that the market will immediately spot and punish any abuses of that power still strikes me as a bit too optimistic.

  • Mark

    This is an excellent example of Google simply over-reacting, and I personally believe that this will backfire sometime in the future. While the technique of BMW is questionable, it could be seen as trying to fight the spammy webmasters. IF Google were really good, then why had BMW to use cloaking in the first place?
    Also, I would like to see BMW suing Google over Copyright infringement. Huh? Yes, for example, Matt's blog has a screenshot of the public BMW web site (surely copyright protected!). Or take the images of BMW in the index. All copyright protected.
    Another question is - who needs whom here? If you don't know that the website of BMW is bmw.de or bmw.com, then good night. If BMW were cool, they simply would sue the hell out of Google and don't bother with being included in the index.

  • disqusererer

    Is Google using BMW as a marketing ploy? Absolutely.

    If you were them would you do the same? Probably.

  • gerber

    You guys are insane, i'm going to "execute" publishing 2.0 from my online sphere.

  • Learn how the search enignes work before comparing a mathematical algorithm to Orwellian distopic fantasy. Here is a better way to describe what happened to BMW.

    Google said, "Don't run red lights when trying to race to the top of the index."

    BMW failed to stop for the red lights and was penalized for it.

  • Thanks for the clarification on the comments issue, Scott. The issue of tone and appearance is also well taken. I'll give you the reading list in a moment, but that is one of the main issues in this long standing debate. Does it really matter how a searcher got to a page about used BMWs, as long as it is a relevant page. "White hat" SEOers say yes -- there are rules, and people should play by them. "Black hat" SEOers would say no -- if you aren't misleading someone about what they'll ultimately see, it's not like there's really a level playing field at all. The key issue in this case probably is that BMW is a big huge brand. Doing something that's so clearly against the stated search rules isn't wise from a PR perspective. They could take the black hat stance and say, "So what, we aren't misleading anyone." In fact, perhaps they or some other big company will do that. But they really are probably the biggest company to be so publicly slapped like this, while other small companies and individual have endured more. Anyway, http://blog.searchenginewatch.... that I've just posted summarize a ton of stuff on the issue at the end. Hope you find it useful.

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