Google admits that employees change index rankings

Google has long maintained that its algorithm is unbiased but the FT has revealed that Google staff can change the rankings...
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Richard Waters in an article at FT.com (Subscription required):
Groups magnify chances of Google hits

Companies with a high page rank are in a strong position to move into new markets. By “pointing” to this new information from their existing sites they can pass on some of their existing search engine aura, guaranteeing them more prominence.

This helps companies such as AOL and Yahoo as they move into the low-cost content business, says Mr Bonnie. “They can use their Google page rank to make sure their content floats to the top,” he says.

Google’s Mr Singhal calls this the problem of “brand recognition”: where companies whose standing is based on their success in one area use this to “venture out into another class of information which they may not be as rich at”. Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect, he adds.

I've known about this for several years but wasn't able to get anyone from Google on the record. These Google employees have the power to promote or even completely erase a site from the Google index.

This admission is potentially a very large problem for Google because it has maintained that its index rankings are unbiased and are computed from a natural pecking order derived from how other sites find a specific site important.

The Google algorithm is a mathematical expression drawing on the PageRank patented method (named after Larry Page, co-founder). It counts how many links to a web site come from other web sites and determines the importance of that web site for millions of search terms. These rankings are worth huge amounts of money to many web sites and changes in rankings can put companies out of business.

Google is currently being sued by several companies claiming bias in Google results.

Scott Cleland, whose blog "The Precursor" has been critical of Google, writes:

"... this first-ever disclosure by Google that "human raters" manually discriminate in the "quality scores" that determine a website's supposed neutral and unbiased search ranking, exposes a rats nest of conflicts of interest that Google has in its "black box" business model."

He says that antitrust authorities are bound to ask key questions such as:

"If links are a factor in determining the rank of content, and Google's advertising revenue is derived from sites' search rankings, how does Google ensure the human raters of the SDB are not influenced to reward Google-owned content or Google partners' content that Google revenue shares with?"

It's a huge can of worms.

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