Home > data science, rant > Hey Google, do less evil.

Hey Google, do less evil.

November 15, 2011

I recently read this article in the New York Times about a business owner’s experiences using Google Adwords.

For those of you not familiar with the advertising business, here’s a geeky explanation. As a business owner, you choose certain key words or phrases, and if and when someone searches on Google with that word or phrase, you bid a certain amount to have your business shown at the top of the return searches or along the right margin of the page. You fix the bid (say 4 cents) beforehand, and you only pay that 4 cents when someone actually clicks. The way your position in the resulting page is determined is through an auction.

Say, for example, you and your competitors have all bid different amounts for the keyword “monodromy”. Then every time someone searches for “monodromy”, all the bids are sorted after being weighted by a quality score, which is a secret sauce created by Google but can be thought of as the probability that some random person will click on your ad.

This weighting makes sense, since Google is essentially determining the expected value of showing your ad: the product of the amount of money they will get paid if someone clicks on it (again, because they only get paid when the click occurs) and the probability of that event actually happening. Quality scores are actually slightly more than this, and we will get back to this issue below.

Moreover, once the sorting by expected value is done, your actual payment is determined not precisely by your bid but by the minimum bid you’d need to still maintain your position in the auction. This is a clever idea that gets people to raise their bids in order to win first place in the auction but not need to pay too much… unless there’s another guy who is determined to win first place.

Of course, it’s not always necessary to pay Google to get clicks. Sometimes your business will show up in the “organic searches” anyway- say if the name of your company is well-chosen for your product. So if you’re selling oak tables and the name of your company is “Oak Tables” then you may not need to pay anything for the that key phrase (but you may be willing to pay for the phrase “tables oak cherry”).

Back to the business owner. He decided to experiment with turning off Adwords, in other words he decided to rely on the results of organic searching instead of paying for each click. It didn’t end well- he gave up after a week because business was bad. The thing that caught my eye in this article was the suggestion that, when he turned off the payment, Google also became stingy with showing his free results. In other words, Google seems to be juicing their results (which is likely done through the quality score function) to punish people for not being in the pay-for-clicks program:

What is surprising to me is the steep drop in organic visits, the clicks from free links. They have fallen 47 percent, from 328 to 173. Stopping the AdWords payments seems to have affected unpaid traffic as well. According to everything I’ve been told about search engine optimization, this shouldn’t have happened. But from a business standpoint, it makes sense to me. Google is in business to make money by selling searches. Why shouldn’t it boost the free listings of its paying customers — and degrade the results when they stop paying? It’s also possible that people are more inclined to click on free results when they see the same company has the top paid link. Maybe it’s conscious, maybe it’s not. I’d be interested to hear any theories readers may have as to why my organic traffic took such a fall.

One theory I have is that it’s unfortunately impossible to figure out, because Google doesn’t seem to think they need to explain anything to anyone, even though they have become the arbiter of information. It’s a scary prospect, that they have so much control over the way we see and understand the world, and between you and me their “do no evil” motto isn’t sufficiently reassuring to make me want to trust them on this completely.

A friend of mine recently had a terrible experience with Google which makes this lack of clarity especially frustrating. Namely, some nut job decided to post evil stuff about him and someone else through comments on other peoples’ blogs. There was no way for him to address this except by asking the individuals whose websites had been used to take down the posts. In particular, there was no way for my friend to address the resulting prominent Google search results through the people working at Google- they don’t answer the phone. It doesn’t matter to them that people’s lives could be ruined with false information; they decided many years ago that they are not in the client service industry and haven’t looked back. Their policy seems to be that, as long as there is no actual and real threat of violence, they have no obligation to do anything.

That would be okay for a small startup with little influence on the world, but that’s really not what Google is. Google wields tremendous powers, and their quality score algorithm is defining our world. At this point they have a moral responsibility to make sure their search result algorithms aren’t ruining people’s lives.

What if it were possible to mark a search results as “inappropriate”? And then, given enough votes, the quality score would be affected and the listing would go down to the bottom of page 19. I realize of course that this could be used for good as well as for bad – people could abuse such a system as well, by squelching information they don’t want to see. But the problem with that argument is that it’s already happening, just inside Google, where we have no view. So in other words yes, it’s a judgment call, but I’d rather have a person (or people) do that than an algorithm.

Categories: data science, rant
  1. JSE
    November 15, 2011 at 8:50 am

    “yes, it’s a judgment call, but I’d rather have a person (or people) do that than an algorithm.”

    I think having people do it IS a kind of algorithm — it aggregates a bunch of human decisions into a ranking, which is what PageRank does in the first place.

  2. November 15, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Sorry I meant the decision to evict a search result is a judgment call.

  3. Brian
    November 15, 2011 at 9:20 am

    The first I completely agree with you, if it is true – it would essentially amount to an extortion fee/protection fee, along the lines of Yelp etc.

    The second point, I completely disagree with you. First, I like to keep in mind the dictum, “never assume malice where stupidity/idiocy/incompetency suffices”, and Google has always been known for its complete inadequacy regarding customer service departments. Second, Google should be a neutral ranker of information. Now, you’re suggesting that Google /should/ use their power to derank or delist sites that somebody doesn’t like, which is exactly what you rant against in your first point. I guess for you, it depends on whether or not they’re your friend? Try to be more consistent.

    • November 15, 2011 at 9:22 am

      Actually I think I only have one point: the models they use are both closed source and incredibly powerful, and that’s crazy and morally irresponsible.

      • JSE
        November 15, 2011 at 10:27 am

        What concerns me is that, in practice, open source means gameable.

  4. November 15, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Okay, first of all, can I start a business selling monodromies? That would be fun.

    Secondly, regarding

    “What if it were possible to mark a search results as “inappropriate”?”

    There’s a huge slippery slope argument here. Is marking libelous post against a non-public figure inappropriate okay? Is it okay to mark negative campaigning against a politician as inappropriate? Is it okay to mark dissent against a government as inappropriate? 60 years ago, would pro Nazi comments have been inappropriate? Are racist comments today inappropriate?

    I hesitate, from a free speech point of view from giving one company the right to censor anyone, especially when they are, as you rightly point out, arbitrators of information.

    • November 16, 2011 at 5:10 am

      But that’s the point- there is already censorship, it’s just being controlled behind the curtains. There’s really no way to make it simple, either, and any efforts to address it naturally do create a slippery slope as you say. In fact it’s our responsibility to address it anyway.

  5. Evan
    November 15, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I’m not at all comfortable with the notion that a private company (“don’t be evil” or not), should be essentially censoring the internet (without a court order) based on mere accusations of defamation, whether through its own customer service or using some sort of crowd-sourced system.

    On the other hand, there probably is a weakness in Google’s algorithm here: comments on highly PageRanked blogs may well be appearing much higher than they should be in search listing. This is a technical problem though that should be solved by some tweaks to their algorithms, not on an individual basis through their customer service.

    [On the other hand, if Google is doing what you suggest it may be doing with AdWords, that would definitely be a very bad thing.]

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