This week I’ve been contributing to a roundtable discussion about Google hosted by SiliconValley.com. 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.