Is Google a public service? Is a Google SERP rank a 'right'?

Google Inc.’s $150 billion market cap belies its corporate public serving mission statement. Nevertheless, Google’s “philosophy
Written by Donna Bogatin, Contributor on

UPDATE: What happens when search engines suddenly start pointing consumers somewhere else? That is a possibility with which Topix.net CEO Rich Skrenta is struggling this month, reports the Wall Street Journal. Skrenta decries what he deems to be an inadequate "Google response to Topix's plea for help."

Skrenta is not the first to suggest Google may somehow owe him a Google SERP rank. I discuss below how Google’s “philosophy” that “democracy on the web works” combined with its 50%+ search market share leads many to view Google as a public service and expect Google to operate as such.

January 11, 2007: Google’s public facing mission statement is a seemingly public serving one: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google’s mission statement is striking similar to The Library of Congress’ mission statement:

"The Library's mission is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations."

Google, a $150 billion market cap for-profit, world-wide corporation, positions itself in the same manner that The Library of Congress, a taxpayer funded U.S. government institution does.

The Library of Congress describes its mission:

The Office of the Librarian is tasked to set policy and to direct and support programs and activities to accomplish the Library's mission…

Your support for the Library of Congress will strengthen outreach programs and allow the Library to build on its vast universal collections. Following in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, whose private library restored the Congress' library after a fire in the U.S. Capitol, you will be ensuring the future for the greatest library ever assembled. Your support will demonstrate your appreciation for and understanding of the value in a civilized society of access to information.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin on Google’s golden ability to “produce new ways to monetize all the time” at the Q3 Wall Street earnings call:

I want to talk a little bit about monetization. In a sense, you might imagine that the low-hanging fruit have been picked. But in fact, we have at the same time built ladders and are reaching for perhaps even larger, higher-hanging fruit.

Because we have reached a certain kind of scale, the tools and resources we have at our disposal now to really do an even better job of bringing the right advertisements to the right users at the right time is far greater. There are new kinds of things that we couldn't have even contemplated doing in the past. ..

We seem to be able to produce new ways to monetize all the time. So I don't see an obvious ceiling.

While Google talks to corporations and Wall Street about its desire and means to drive the sky’s-the-limit profits to Google shareholder coffers, The Library of Congress reaches out to individuals and organizations for development “support” of “a key resource for an informed electorate.”

Google Inc.’s $150 billion market cap belies its corporate public serving mission statement. Nevertheless, Google’s “philosophy” that “democracy on the web works” combined with its 50%+ search market share leads many to view Google as a public service and expect Google to operate as such.

Public Broadcasting Service “host” Mark Glaser declares: “Google search snafu can have huge impact on niche blogs.” Glaser’s own mission statement is to “track how new media (is) changing society and culture.”

What is Glaser’s latest example of how new media is “changing our world”? Glaser signals that a Google “bug” has “made a handful of influential sex blogs ‘disappear’ from Google search results.”

Glaser underscores the unseemly situation Chelsea Girl’s “the erotic Pretty Dumb Things blog” found itself in thanks to Google:

If you searched for “pretty dumb things,” you wouldn’t see Chelsea Girl’s blog on the first page of results.

What would you see, then, “on the first page of results” if “you searched for “pretty dumb things”? Glaser: “Instead, you would find less relevant sites.”

Glaser worries that “small independent blogs” are losing “their ranking on relevant Google search terms” and decries the power of Google “mishaps” to “punish” web businesses that “depend on Google-generated traffic.”

Luckily, Google’s Matt Cutts was quickly on the case. Glaser posts a Cutts’ email:

This is relatively rare. In this case, a bug (plus an unfortunate side-effect that caused our internal tests to miss the problem) caused a very small number of sites (less than ten sites that we know of) to rank lower for about four days. We believe this situation is fully corrected and the very small number of impacted sites have been returned to their proper ranking. We’ve fixed the particular set of circumstances that led to this situation, and we’ve put changes in place to prevent it from happening again. We’ve also added more tests to our internal processes to spot similar problems to this in the future.

Google does adjust its algorithms to try to improve search quality, and that can cause changes in rankings for sites. Before new changes are deployed, they have to pass a number of tests. We can also look at factors such as the amount of “churn” [change in search results] caused by a particular change. In this case, the small number of sites affected meant that we didn’t detect the situation before it went live. As a fallback, we also monitor feedback from various online sources: blogs, forums, emails, etc. In a very short time, we noticed a couple blog posts, checked out their reports, and discovered the issue. After that, we were able to fix the issues involved quite quickly. 

What “issues” were Cutts “able to fix” quite quickly? Who determined the “proper ranking” to be “returned”? What “changes" were put in place to the benefit of which sites?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has put forth the secret, “untouchable” nature of the Google ranking algorithm:

The precise formula of ranking is so proprietary only a small number of people actually in the company know it. And I've chosen not to even know it.

Does Matt Cutts “know it,” but not Eric Schmidt? Can Matt Cutts influence SERP results?

Google is a private business and is entitled to do business in any manner it chooses. A Google SERP ranking is not a U.S. government “entitlement.”

Cutts puts forth that Google is held to a higher standard than its less successful competitors (see “Does Google play fair?”). I disagree.

Google believes its financial success is dependent upon opaqueness with all of its constituencies. The more successful Google becomes, however, the more its constituencies clamor for transparency.

Google needs to remedy the disconnect between its seemingly public-serving philosophy with its decidedly private financial interests serving business model.


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