Monday, May 9, 2016

Don't Be Google

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- You really did it? You told Google they were evil?
- Suggested the idea to their man in charge of new advertising, yes.
- What did he reply?
- I gave a definition of evil - knowing as individuals doing something was bad but doing it anyway for social rewards. Asked him about Google producing a list of search results it claims to be the best possible, in order of usefulness, then subverting the order by putting paid advertising on top of the list.
- What did Google say?
- He'd prefer to continue the conversation by email.
- And you did, of course.
- Yes. Here it is:

Dear Mr. Pleasance, 
You remember me, I think: I asked about the inherent contradiction in Google Search's business process: search results, page ranking, reflect technical calculations of popularity, personalization, and inter-linkages. And this calculation is undermined by paid advertising, which puts at the top not the most popular, personally relevant, or interlinked, but the highest paying. 
I'm sure this is not the first time you have heard this remarked on.

A related problem is that the paid advertisers, after paying for a period of time, as their paid for popularity leads to more popularity, they gain page rank based not on payment but on unpaid characteristics (popularity, personalization, linkage), and so these results too become "contaminated" by the influence of money, rather than calculated to be of advantage to the customer.

So there are two related problems here: (1) the top results, being paid for, work against the advantage of the customer, and (2) payment promises to create a brand, or a monopoly of interest, which will find its place in the unpaid portion of the search results, thus contaminating the entirety of the results. 
Shouldn't Google, if it wants to do good, be looking into ways of dealing with these problems? 
I can think of two solutions to try, right off the bat. 
To deal with the first problem of advertising undermining the suitability of search results: "Affirmative action" advertising. Small businesses, on a competitive basis, would be chosen by Google to benefit from free top-of-the-page advertising.

To deal with the problem of monopolization of search results:

Go back to the Aardvark past of Google plus. Use robot chat to ask members, "What do you want to do?" and on the basis of personalization statistics send the best people to the questioner. The robot follows up, asking, was he/she the right one to meet?, and continues to be a presence in creative management of individuals' lives. People would more easily find each other and become each other's resource, become temporary "companies", and this robot aided formation of alliances, business and personal, potentially can undermine the market control effect of monopolies.

I look forward to your response,

- Rex Miller

Hi Rex, 
Thanks for the follow up. I think at the core of your assumption is a belief that somehow having ads included as part of a search result is disingenuous and/or bad for people. You also appear to believe that top ranked ads are placed purely to the highest bidder. I can help address both of these: 
1) Search ads that are served are done so with an expectation that they are 100% relevant to the query being submitted. In fact, the goal at Google is to make search results most relevant by having ads as part of the results and ensuring that the ads that get shown are in fact useful and relevant to the person searching. If ads were to go away, the relevance and completeness of the search result would drop and actually be of lower value to the searcher. In addition, to ensure maximum transparency, and provide the maximum choice and control to our users, we ensure that all ads are clearly marked as such so that there's never any confusion that the content at the top of the search results are paid for, while also being very relevant to their query. As such, there should never be a question in a person's mind about what they're clicking on, and they will only click on an ad if they find that it's most relevant to addressing their query. This is all very consistent with Google's mission of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful. 
2) Search ads are not just rank ordered based on who pays the most. Ad relevance plays a much higher role in determining what gets shown. To help better understand this, here's a link to a good YouTube video by Hal Varian describing in detail how Google algorithms determine what ad to place on a page, and in what order. As above, Google's goal is for transparency and relevance and to this end, we make the advertising division of our company very transparent and available for all to learn about and understand. 
I hope this is helpful, and I hope you found my talk on Monday interesting. 
Warm regards, 

Dear Mr. Pleasance,
Thanks a lot for the completeness of your response (and I did enjoy your lecture). Can I take you at your word that Google has a positive wish to clarify their advertisement policy and continue the discussion with you a little further?

I understand, I think, what you mean when you say ads improve the search results. I may prefer to know about, as in your video, an artisan furniture maker rather than the more widely known companies at the top of the search list. 
My question is, if Google knows the results are improved, why does it wait for the artisan to come up with some money for Google before the search results are changed? Is Google not able to find the artisan furniture maker and depends for his discovery on him to come to its advertising division? In fact, I read some time ago that Google was already doing something like this, advancing in the search rank worthy individuals, in a small way and on a trail basis.

Do you see what I mean? Any good that you attribute to advertising, with respect to search results should have already been there. Unless Google is really saying it needs to advertisers to come forth and bring themselves to its attention? 
But in that case, why should businesses that put themselves forward have to pay to improve Google's search results? It is already in Google's interest of complete results to have them there. Or can you be seriously suggesting that willingness to pay makes these businesses more of interest and relevance? 
Of course, Google makes money from advertising at the top of the page listing. But there are other ways Google could make money that would not lessen the value of the search results, when, as you write, Google definitely does not want to lesson the suitability of the results to the customer. 
I suggested two steps Google could take without changing basic advertising policy. "Affirmative Action Advertising" that would allow many people to compete for Google's attention, when Google could not otherwise find them, and receive free top of the page listing on a lottery or merit basis. 
I suggested returning Google Plus to its Aardvark past, this time with robot assistance for site members, not to answer each other's information queries, but to find each other to do things with each other. Many small enterprises could be created, and the effect of monopoly arising out of popularity breeding popularity would be lessened. 
I would appreciate a response to these suggestions. Many people are interested in how Google approaches suggestions of innovation, whether they are truly open to innovation when it comes to their basic business of search. 
- Rex Miller 

Hi Rex, 
Two things: 
1) I don't think it's fair to say that Google is avoiding debate and communications on the topics you've raised. You have I have had several back-and-forths on this topic and each shared our points-of-view.

2) Regarding your suggestions for ways Google could improve its products, I think you should publish those and let the readers weigh in. Our product teams are constantly on the look out for opportunities to make our products the best they can be for our users and customers and I'm sure they'll see your ideas and also see how readers weigh in with their views on your ideas. 
All the best, 

Dear Mr. Pleasance, 
Thanks for your quick response. You are right that if I publish a story about Google, the company will one way or another get to hear of it. However, when that happens, Google does not respond. That lack of response is what we are talking about here. It makes Google appear to be an institution that makes its way in the world through the use of power, rather than knowledge. Google claims otherwise, so I ask the company, through you, why it is impossible to communicate with the company? 
- Rex

- And?
- There was a round going over the same ground I've left out.
- Aside from the fun of asking your innocent question, does it really matter? Google is evil, the rest of big business is evil, politics is evil. 
- Did you ever get around to reading Guns, Germs, And Steel*?
- I'm meaning to.
- The book argues that technology, material and social, develops best in regions with moderate connectedness, neither too high nor too low.
- What's wrong with high connectedness?
- It allows communication to be seized hold of, controlled, monopolized, filtered, reduced.
- So Google, monopolizing access to internet communication, is reducing access, retarding social development? How?
- By putting at the top of their search results what has been paid for, when what is at the top is already, in a sense, the result of monopoly, of what is most popular becoming more popular by being at the top of the list.
- When there is medium amount of communication, there are some pockets which do not get absorbed in that cycle of popular becoming more popular, and they survive to issue a challenge to the monopoly.
- Exactly. You can see our culture as a kind of epidemic, which ends when it kills everyone, but in Europe, for example it didn't, because there were always other pockets of people to move on to and infect.
- Then Google, as their guy said, by subverting their own monopoly with advertising, opening it up to uninfected pockets of information, is doing something good. Their results are better with the advertising. That's why you suggested extending the benefit with affirmative action advertising. And, I understand now, that was the idea behind the social network sending people to each other to do things with: each person with his connections is to the other is a pocket of communication that can be put in contact with another pocket of communication with his connections. Not too much connection, not too little.
* Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, 1997