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Hard-coding bias in Google “algorithmic” search results

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Thu, Nov 18, 2010 at 4:17 pm

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Hard-coding bias in Google “algorithmic” search results

Google tells the public its results have “no manual intervention” and result “solely” from “completely automated” “computer algorithms” that “reflect the popular opinion of the Web” “completely objectively.”  It’s a lofty promise, but is it true?

In an article I posted on my Website this week, I argue that Google’s results are anything but “automated.”  Quite the contrary: I argue that Google has hard-coded its service to present its own links first.  In particular, Google enjoys 100% success at claiming the top-most algorithmic search position for all terms it elects to target (whereas ordinary algorithmic search tends to yield a range of success rates; no site can confidently achieve first position for every single term).

Meanwhile, even a tiny variation of a listed term (such as adding a comma) makes Google’s own-service links disappear completely.  The best inference from these facts is that Google has hard-coded its links to appear in response to certain searches — presenting Google’s links not because any Google algorithm deems the links the most relevant, but rather because Google staff instructed that these specific links be shown for these specific searches.

Through hard-coding and other adjustments to search results, Google gains an important advantage in any sector that requires or benefits from substantial algorithmic search traffic. By directing users to Google services, Google can make its offerings take off in a broad class of services — be it health, finance, maps, video, travel, or otherwise.

Any Google business that needs “algorithmic” traffic can get it, free, in huge quantity.  Meanwhile, entrepreneurs recognize and anticipate that Google may bury their results as it favors its own services — blunting the incentive to build a business that competes with Google or competes with a service Google might plausibly develop. It’s easy to envision a future where user preferences and genuine excellence are less important than Google’s rote power.

Read the full analysis, screenshots, and more in Hard-Coding Bias in Google “Algorithmic” Search Results here.

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- who has written 1 posts on Inside Google.

Ben Edelman is an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit. His current research explores the public and private forces shaping Internet architecture and business opportunities. He has written about the implications of growing market concentration in Internet search and resulting risks for advertisers. Edelman holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Economics at Harvard University, a J.D. from the Harvard Law School, an A.M. in Statistics from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and an A.B. in Economics from Harvard College (summa cum laude). He is a member of the Massachusetts Bar.

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2 Responses to “Hard-coding bias in Google “algorithmic” search results”

  1. Ernie Says:

    Google like so many company’s are enriching themselves using the data they collect from unwilling users thing they getting something for free. There are no free lunches. Google just needs to tell folks in plan english this is what they are doing.

  2. rasmusen Says:

    I don’t know what’s taking the government so long to break apart this company. The evidence of monopoly abuse can’t be more obvious. G. Maps, G. Products, etc.

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