The search engine wars are over and Google won.
iCrossing recently estimated Google's share of the search market at 77%. Techcrunch says Google gobbled up 90% of all new search traffic last year.
If The Google likes you then you are a star. If The Google frowns you do not exist.
Google insists that everything it does is done fairly, and that its PageRank algorithms are entirely automated. But this is not entirely possible. If a spammer is tweaking its results to get ahead of PageRank, Google must have the power to deal with it on behalf of users.
When it can't make things work with software, Google applies a manual penalty to a site. Understanding how and why manual or algorithmic penalties are applied is practically an industry onto itself.
And so we come to a little UK site called Foundem. Foundem calls itself a "vertical search" site. Another, more negative view is that they're an aggregator of third party content. It's a comparison shopping service. Once you know what you're looking for, and you're British, Foundem will find you the best price.
To put things bluntly, Google lostum Foundem. Even after it found its home page it still kept its search results away from Google users.
Richard Wray of The Guardian was very guarded writing about the case, making this the third paragraph of his story:
There is no evidence that Google is in any way being dishonest or unfair in the way that it ranks such websites, but Foundem's fight to discover what happened has highlighted the ever-growing influence of its mysterious search algorithms.
Don't hurt The Guardian, Google. We're just reporting on this. (Same with Smartplanet, by the way. I'm only the piano player.)
Foundem's founder has put up his own complaint site, Searchneutrality.org, whose assessment is not nearly so charitable.
Google’s overwhelming dominance of search means that no one can doubt the immediate and substantial economic impact of a Google penalty....Google exercises this immense power without oversight of any kind.
Google is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. Relying entirely on software means it can be manipulated by software. Allowing for manual intervention leaves it vulnerable to the charge of being an abusive monopoly.
This is the price of success. Google's informal slogan, "don't be evil," is increasingly being thrown in its face by competitors and yet-another mini-industry, Google critics. Its every move is now subject to severe scrutiny.
As a tech reporter I have seen this movie before.
Early in the 1990s many of the Sam Walton stories portraying him as a cheapskate on behalf of the people were reworked for Bill Gates. I heard them from cab drivers at Comdex, Bill packing his bag in a coach overhead bin, Bill and Steve Ballmer chortling over having to ride First Class as they went public.
By the end of the decade Gates was being portrayed as Billgatus of Borg -- the feds were on his tail and today comics know they can always get a laugh assuming Microsoft is a force of implacable evil.
This change of mood is now happening to Google. Resistance to it is futile. Will it go as far as it did with Microsoft, or with WalMart for that matter?
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com