The birth of Google

This week I’ve been contributing to a roundtable discussion about Google hosted by Each day’s discussion focuses on a different issue, and today’s issue is “ethics and trust.” It so happens that I’ve recently been thinking about how Google’s search engine changed as it moved from academic prototype to commercial service – from ideal to reality – and what the shift might suggest about the company’s organizational ethics. So that’s what I wrote about today. Here’s what I posted:

In a 1998 academic paper titled The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page laid out their vision for what would soon become their company’s core product. They addressed the question of advertising in an appendix, calling into question whether ads were compatible with effective, unbiased search:

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention,” a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media, we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Brin and Page concluded that “we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”

Today, I went to Google’s home page and did a search on “cellular phone.” After three paid advertising listings for cell phone providers, the top result was Nokia’s home page, followed by Cingular’s. In total, six of the nine results on the first page were commercial sites selling cellular plans or equipment, two were commercial sites providing information about cell phones as a platform for advertising, and one, the last on the page, was a governmental site providing information about phone safety in cars. On the right side of the page were eight more advertisements.

I point this out not because I think PageRank is in any way biased toward Google advertisers, but simply to show how different Google is today from the vision that Brin and Page established in their 1998 paper. Google’s adoption of a commercial model built on advertising – its formative event as a company – was in a very real sense an act of self-betrayal, in which the founders abandoned their ideal of a “competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.”

In this context, the company’s famous “do no evil” motto begins to appear like a salve for a guilty conscience. Any discussion of Google’s ethics needs to begin with an acknowledgment that the business’s commercial interests have in the past compromised its founders’ ideals, and that such compromises can be expected in the future as well.

6 thoughts on “The birth of Google

  1. Dan

    I don’t think your analysis is really fair.

    The reason that commercial results didn’t show up as prominently in 1998 isn’t because of any change in Google. It’s because there wasn’t nearly as large a commercial presence on the web back then, so the most-PageRankful results were more likely to be obscure academic papers than corporate home pages. Their example highlighted the difference between their search engine and others, but really, it sort of sucked as an example. A person who types exactly the phrase “cellular phones” into a search engine is not likely to be looking for an academic study. They are likely to be looking for a cell phone. By that measure, the current results, including the ads, are likely to be vastly more useful to Google users than the 1998 ones were.

    If you want to know about cell phones and driving, go to Google and search for “cellular phone driving”, and you’ll get just what you’re looking for (with only a single AdWords ad discreetly off to the side, for a site selling “get off your cell phone” bumper stickers :-).

  2. David Brake

    Of course the ads are there now that weren’t before but they are reasonably unobtrusive. The change in the search results is not surprising – it’s not so much that Google has changed as far as its algorithm is concerned – do you think they would have tweaked its engine in such a way that it favours commercial sites in search results? I assume the change has come alongside 1) commercial development of the cellphone industry being reflected online and 2) search engine optimisers targeting Google in a way that they didn’t when their engine was just a prototype.

    Of course it would be better if we could all know just what Google was up to one way or the other with its search “recipe”.

  3. Nick S

    Put me in the ‘slightly unfair’ camp too. A Google search for ‘cell phone safety’ brings up a host of relevant (non-commercial) links. Compare US cellphone use in 1998 (c. 30% of the population), and the online presence of cellphone providers at the time, and you immediately appreciate the very different search environment for Brin and Page’s test case. Heck, the use of ‘cellular’ itself screams ‘shiny new technology’.

    (We can also throw in the fact that Google has contributed to a modern environment in which search users are generally more specific in their terminology.)

    Now, there are other cases where Google is obviously being gamed for PageRank, and hasn’t done enough to address it: namely, in areas where users want non-commercial data on certain commercial entities. Looking for reviews or independent sites for hotels or non-chain car rentals is nigh-on impossible.

  4. Rowan on Decision Making

    What will Google become?

    Nicholas Carr happened to follow-up on my post yesterday about Google’s 10–or is it seven?–Key Princples: …the company’s famous “do no evil” motto begins to appear like a salve for a guilty conscience. Any discussion of Google’s ethics need…

  5. croixdj

    I think that over the last 6-8 months (oct 2005) google has made a major change in their ranking algorithm, which is biased against non-commercial sites.

    Google’s main results page is now just about the same as if you searched on Froogle, at least in the realm of searching for information on specific products.

    If you are searching for any specific item by its name, you will find hundreds of results for pages that sell that product, but nowhere in the top results will you find non biased information, reviews, or even the products own site, unless said site sells the product directly to consumers.

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