After years of taking a fairly laissez-faire attitude toward googlebombing, Google has now taken action to stop the practice. It has incorporated into its search engine a googlebomb-sniffing algorithm that somehow identifies and neutralizes any concerted effort to skew search results for a given phrase (such as, most famously, tying “miserable failure” to the White House site). That’s fine with me. It’s like scrubbing graffiti off the side of a subway car.
But that’s not the whole story. What’s particularly revealing here is Google’s explanation for why it has finally decided to tweak its search engine to defuse googlebombs. Did the company act out of a desire to present better search results? Nope. To counter the willful distortion of results? Nope. To serve the public interest? Nope. The driving reason is that the company had come to fear that googlebombing was tarnishing its image. As Google’s Matt Cutts explains:
People have asked about how we feel about Googlebombs, and we have talked about them in the past. Because these pranks are normally for phrases that are well off the beaten path, they haven’t been a very high priority for us. But over time, we’ve seen more people assume that they are Google’s opinion, or that Google has hand-coded the results for these Googlebombed queries. That’s not true, and it seemed like it was worth trying to correct that misperception.
So the company is allowing its concerns about its public image to influence its search results. The upshot in this case may be salubrious, but what kind of precedent is being set here? And, perhaps more important, what does it tell us about what’s inside the Google black box that determines how most of us find information on the Web most of the time?
Three years ago, when Google was first asked about googlebombing, it gave, as Danny Sullivan notes, the corporate equivalent of a shrug. A spokesman said, “We just reflect the opinion on the Web, for better or worse.” Google’s search engine was, in other words, just a passive feedback machine that reported the people’s wisdom – or stupidity – back to the people. It was resolutely democratic, with all the strengths and flaws of democracy. Google itself had little control over the machine it had built.
That perception of Google’s search engine – that sense that “we the people” control its workings – continues to hold sway among the public. But while it may have been true once – and while it may in fact have been the company’s founding ideal – it’s not true anymore. Google’s engine is a meticulously hand-crafted, continually optimized machine that does precisely what Google instructs it to do – even if that means filtering results to protect the company’s reputation. Google may have good in its heart. It may, for the time being anyway, be fighting on our behalf against the forces of distortion that it has unleashed. But let’s not forget that Google’s machine is not our machine. It’s Google’s, for better or worse.