Search Neutrality: Can Search Be Neutral? Should It Be?

January 20, 2017

NeutralMatt “Google Spam” Cutts himself pointed out “an interesting essay on search neutrality” this week. If you initially read this as “net neutrality,” so did I – in fact “search neutrality” is a pseudo-buzzword concept that is built on the principles of net neutrality, as James Grimmelmann notes in the essay, titled “Some Skepticism About Search Neutrality.” Search neutrality targets search engines like Google rather than Internet service providers (ISPs), and its proponents argue that search engines shouldn’t be able to discriminate among websites, biasing results toward some sites rather than others. But wait, a skeptic like Grimmelmann might say – don’t search engines exist to discriminate among sites? If they didn’t, how could there be rankings at all? Grimmelmann writes:

Notwithstanding its sudden popularity, the case for search neutrality is a muddle. There is a fundamental misfit between its avowed policy goal of protecting users and most of the tests it proposes to protect them. Scratch beneath the surface of search neutrality and you will find that it would protect not search users, but websites. In the search space, however, websites are as often users’ enemies as not; the whole point of search is to help users avoid the sites they don’t want to see.

Grimmelmann identifies eight principles of search neutrality and goes on to dismantle them: “As we shall see, all eight of these principles are unusable as bases for sound search regulation.” The eight principles are:

  1. Equality
  2. Objectivity
  3. Bias
  4. Traffic
  5. Relevance
  6. Self-Interest
  7. Transparency
  8. Manipulation

He points out that he doesn’t think search engines should skate under the law, just that the current formulation of search neutrality “fails at its own goals.”

In general, I’m in agreement with the argument. There is no way for search engines to treat all sites equally, objectively, and without bias and still provide any use value at all to searchers. They cannot send traffic to all sites equally. And if search engines were completely transparent about their algorithms, they’d be easier to spam, resulting in much worse results for users.

Matt Cutts, naturally, seems to agree with it too, though he doesn’t exactly come out and say this – just calls it “fascinating,” “clear,” and “cogent.” What about someone from outside Google? Barry Adams, in contrast, writes that he’s “not terribly impressed” by the piece, calling the eight principles as outlined by Grimmelmann “straw men.” Adams says “the search neutrality debate is about Google and other search engines giving preference to their own properties over those of their rivals … In my opinion Google is abusing its power and does not have the best interests of its users in mind all the time.” In other words, he thinks the debate centers on the “self-interest” principle more than anything else.

Nate Anderson of Wired and Ars Technica calls the piece “a good read” and says “the arguments make a great deal of good sense in general, but they open Grimmelmann up to some obvious charges of supporting a behemoth like Google — and if you can’t imagine any way in which the company could ‘be evil,’ you’re severely lacking in imagination.” (For the record, I think Grimmelmann can imagine this; for example he writes: “the Chinese search engine Baidu explicitly shakes down websites, demoting them in its rankings unless they buy ads. It’s easy to tell horror stories about what search engines might do that are just plausible enough to be genuinely scary.” )

Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land says the paper comes to the same conclusion that they have (see Danny Sullivan’s great satire piece from earlier this year on an incoherent NYT editorial):  “'search neutrality' is unworkable and even undesirable in practice.”

What do you think? Is “search neutrality” worth fighting for, and if so, what should it entail?

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Have a great weekend!

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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