Google & Transparency
In The News
Tony Silber, Forbes
President Donald Trump's accusation this week that Google's search results are "rigged" against him and against conservative media outlets inadvertently raised an issue that's been simmering among media companies for some time.
It's not about an alleged political bias at Google. For media executives, it's about Google's lack of transparency and its apparently arbitrary shifts in its algorithms.
Given Google's dominance of search, and its control of so much of the marketing spend in the economy, media companies are left vulnerable, their businesses at risk, when an incomprehensible shift in an algorithm results in a decline in their web traffic.
I spoke to a variety of media companies, both B2B and consumer, for their perspectives — not about Trump's statements but on Google's business practices and their strategies for working with the search giant. Several large media companies declined to comment. Others didn't reply to my inquiry. For those that did, responses ran on a spectrum that began with resigned acceptance of Google's power and extended to flat-out frustration.
"Google’s lack of transparency is really the issue," says Tony Uphoff, CEO of Thomas, a New York City-based platform for industrial-product sourcing. "The company has literally no clear, unambiguous way to describe how the algorithms actually work in determining content quality or appropriateness."
And when Google is questioned about it, Uphoff adds, it claims the lack of transparency is necessary because bad actors would game the algorithms. Google stands alone in being the judge of quality content and where any other site sits in terms of search rankings — all while it controls 60 cents of every digital ad dollar, Uphoff says.
“The unpredictability of SEO has actually served as a positive for companies like ours, forcing us to focus on active registered use, which now exceeds SEO here at Thomas,” he says."Today, 80% of the above-the-fold results in an average Google search are Google paid ads or services. And the company spends more money on lobbying legislators in Washington, D.C., than any company in history."
The Google communications department did not respond to an emailed request for comment. It did respond to Trump two days ago, however, saying, in part, "Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users' queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment."
Tom Kemp, CEO of Secaucus, New Jersey-based Northstar Travel Group, offered a perspective similar to Uphoff's. "The power that Google wields over businesses that depend on Google results is enormous, and it often seems arbitrary and opaque," Kemp says. "We've all witnessed online consumer media sites literally wiped out as their audience essentially disappears or is cut in half in a day when Google decides to change its algorithm."
In the travel sector, Kemp adds, online agencies such as Expedia, Booking.com, and TripAdvisor spend enormous amounts of money on paid search with Google, only to find themselves competing with Google itself via the search giant's Google Travel. Google’s own sites come up first in results.
"I'm not sure if greater regulation by the Trump administration, which would have a clear political agenda, is the answer, but Google needs to provide accountability and a level playing field," Kemp says. "As the global monolithic utility for all businesses, Google has a responsibility to society and all businesses that transcends its own direct business interests."
Other media executives take a more practical approach, even while acknowledging Google's enormous power. "Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm to surface the most relevant content," says Fran Middleton, chief digital officer at Boston-based America's Test Kitchen. "Although it typically does not disclose what factors go into the tweaks, they are often related to basics like page load speed, mobile compatibility, page structure, and quality and authority of content.
"At the end of the day," Middleton says, "your content rank is at the mercy of Google's algorithm, but making sure you adhere to SEO fundamentals will help mitigate any negative impact."
Others at the practitioner level emphasized the importance of SEO skills. Lisa Kirschner, managing content editor at Rockford, Illinois-based Watt Global Media, says she pays attention to algorithm changes and responds on an ongoing basis.
"We do monitor and resolve SEO and ranking issues on our sites," she says. "In recent years, Google's algorithms have focused more on providing high-quality, relevant and engaging content versus simply adhering to a 'checklist' of technical requirements."
And Ronda Hughes, vice president of digital media at Chicago-based EnsembleIQ, suggests the focus for B2B media should be on engagement methods that don't rely on search.
"Placing too much focus on social media or web browsers, when we have zero control over their algorithms or business decisions and ethics, would be counterintuitive in the B2B world, where we need targeting and control in order to make successful connections," she says.
Meanwhile, Chris Elwell, CEO of Redding, Connecticut-based Third Door Media, which covers the search-marketing sector with its Search Engine Land brand, dismisses the whole premise that Google's lack of transparency suggests some kind of bias.
"Google has two goals as a publicly traded company," Elwell says. "First, they want to sell more ads. Second, they want to generate more page views so they can sell more ads. It’s absurd to think they’d rig their algorithm to make achieving those goals more difficult."
Marcus Witte, vice president of integrated marketing and demand generation at New York City-based SourceMedia, concedes potential bias on Google's part.
"Until the day the duopoly shifts to 100% AI-driven algorithms with zero human interference, bias will continue to exist — that's human nature," he says. "Of course they are using our data to make money. Of course they are prioritizing content that makes them more money. It is, and always will be, about the money as long as humans are determining the prioritization."
In the end, precedent may be a decisive factor in Google's influence going forward, suggests Thomas' Uphoff.
"We’ve seen similar monopoly models in technology before," he says. "IBM’s control over the mainframe market resulted in consent decrees back in the 1960s. Microsoft’s control over the operating system, the browser and the office suite in the 1990s also resulted in consent decrees by the government. In both cases, technology innovation soared after these monopolistic practices were restricted."
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