Google's power disquieting

When it comes to directing people's attention, there has never been anything as powerful as today's vast online search engines, and when it comes to search engines, nobody can touch Google, whose sites handle an estimated 88 billion queries a month, roughly two-thirds the world total.

Users don't have any idea how Google decides the order in which it presents search results, and that ranking is the most consequential thing Google does. That's because search engines may look far and wide, but their users do not. If your company doesn't show up at or near the top of Google's results, it's invisible.

A survey last May by the online advertising network Chitika found that the No. 1 search result drew over one-third of all traffic the results generated - twice as much as No. 2, three times the traffic of No. 3. Being on the first page of rankings was critical. Even No. 10, at the bottom of page 1, drew nearly two and a half times the traffic of No. 11, at the top of the second page.

So any retailer that wants to reach customers online cares intensely about its rankings, and is eager for ploys to ensure prominence. Hence the business of SEO - search engine optimization. SEO is focused on figuring out Google's rankings and giving Google what it's looking for. Which is what? Only Google knows, and its search methodology is about as widely shared as the formula for Coke.

What is known is that Google puts great weight not just on traffic flows, but on how well-regarded a particular site is, and tries to measure that regard by calculating the number and, to some extent, the quality of other sites that link to it. Google likes to think it is reflecting some prevailing judgment of a site's value.

But that judgment can be counterfeited. One extraordinary instance, uncovered recently by The New York Times, involved JC Penney, the venerable Main Street retailer. Apparently, for months Penney was the top-ranked site if you searched for terms as disparate as "skinny jeans," "home decor," "area rugs," "dresses," and "table cloths." Penney even pulled more traffic for "Samsonite carry on luggage" than Samsonite's own site.

How come? Penney's success was traced to an SEO consultant who had, essentially, contracted with more than 2,000 web pages that had no discernible purpose apart from linking to sites like Penney's - for pay. Penney's fortunes rose thanks to this virtual ballot-stuffing.

In a second case, The Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Overstock.com had been caught offering discounts to college students and faculty for linking to Overstock from various search terms, among them "gift baskets" and "bunk beds." Overstock's rankings soared because the links came from sites with the ".edu" suffix reserved for schools. Google apparently assigns great weight to .edu sites, since they rarely link to commercial entities and their endorsements are thought to be especially credible.

Google's response in both instances was terrible and swift. It took undisclosed measures that, in Penney's case, led to its average position for 59 search terms plummeting from 1.3 to 52 within two weeks. Overstock had been at or near the top for dozens of keywords, but within days had plummeted to the fifth or six page of results, the functional equivalent of vanishing.

The tales are disturbing on several counts.

First, the vulnerability of the rankings to manipulation. With 300 million domain names to police, Google is preposterously outgunned.

Second, the quiet, unchallengeable ferocity of the response. You don't have to support fraud to agree with the Times reader who posted: "Was anyone else spooked by Google virtually eliminating a company from existence by removing it entirely from search results?"

Third, the nontransparency of the whole search business. What could be more opaque? The retailers' actions certainly seem wrong, but says who? If the principles guiding search shape public awareness in sweeping ways, shouldn't we know what they are? Besides, Google itself routinely features its own spinoffs - Google Product Search, Google News and YouTube - high up on its results. Is that OK? Why do I get three "Google Maps" links on page 1 when I type in "driving directions?"

Now Google is incorporating recommendations from your social media "friends" to personalize the search results you get. Who authorized Google to help itself to that information? And precisely how will your so-called friends' opinions alter the rankings you see?

Google is an extraordinary company, and its credo of "do no harm" is impressive. But it's difficult to think of another private, profit-seeking entity that has ever exercised such vast power over what the world thinks about and pays attention to. That's a profoundly public function, and with it comes an obligation of accountability that Google has so far bungled.

Contact Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, at The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.