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Search neutrality is a principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance. This means that when a user queries a search engine, the engine should return the most relevant results found in the provider's domain (those sites which the engine has knowledge of), without manipulating the order of the results (except to rank them by relevance), excluding results, or in any other way manipulating the results to a certain bias.
Search neutrality is related to network neutrality in that they both aim to keep any one organization from limiting or altering a user's access to services on the Internet. Search neutrality aims to keep the organic search results (results returned because of their relevance to the search terms, as opposed to results sponsored by advertising) of a search engine free from any manipulation, while network neutrality aims to keep those who provide and govern access to the Internet from limiting the availability of resources to access any given content.
Search neutrality became a concern after search engines, most notably Google, were accused of search bias. Competitors and companies claim search engines systematically favor some sites (and some kind of sites) over others in their lists of results, disrupting the objective results users believe they are getting. The call for search neutrality goes beyond traditional search engines. Sites like Amazon.com and Facebook are also accused of skewing results. Amazon’s search results are influenced by companies that pay to rank higher in their search results while Facebook filters their newsfeed lists to conduct social experiments.
"Vertical search" spam penalties
In order to find information on the Web, most users make use of search engines, which crawl the web, index it and show a list of results ordered by relevance. The use of search engines to access information through the web has become a key factor for online businesses companies, which depend on the flow of users visiting their pages. One of these companies is Foundem. Foundem provides a "vertical search" service to compare products available on online markets for the U.K. Many people see these "vertical search" sites as spam. Beginning in 2006 and for three and a half years following, Foundem’s traffic and business dropped significantly due to a “penalty” applied by Google. Adam Raff, co-founder of Foundem, first coined the term search neutrality in December 2009 in his op-ed piece in The New York Times after Google removed the “penalty” from Foundem. Foundem launched SearchNeutrality.org, a website dedicated to promote investigations against Google, in the same year. Most of Foundem’s accusations claim that Google applies penalties to other vertical search engines just because they represent competition. Foundem is backed by a Microsoft proxy group, the 'Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplace'.
The Foundem’s case chronology
The following table details Foundem's chronology of events as found on their website:
|June 2006||Foundem’s Google search penalty begins. Foundem starts an arduous campaign to have the penalty lifted.|
|August 2006||Foundem’s AdWord penalty begins. Foundem starts an arduous campaign to have the penalty lifted.|
|August 2007||Teleconference with Google AdWords Quality Team representative.|
|September 2007||Foundem is “whitelisted” for AdWords (i.e. Google manually grants Foundem immunity from its AdWords penalty).|
|January 2009||Foundem starts “public” campaign to raise awareness of this new breed of penalty and manual whitelisting.|
|April 2009||First meeting with ICOMP.|
|October 2009||Teleconference with Google Search Quality Team representative, beginning a detailed dialogue between Foundem and Google.|
|December 2009||Foundem is “whitelisted” for Google natural search (i.e. Google manually grants Foundem immunity from its search penalty).|
Google's large market share (85%) has made them a target for search neutrality litigation via antitrust laws. In February 2010, Google released an article on the Google Public Policy blog expressing their concern for fair competition, when other companies at the UK joined Foundem's cause (eJustice.fr, and Microsoft's Ciao! from Bing) also claiming being unfairly penalized by Google.
The FTC’s Investigation into Allegations of Search Bias
After two years of looking into claims that Google “manipulated its search algorithms to harm vertical websites and unfairly promote its own competing vertical properties,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted unanimously to end the antitrust portion of its investigation without filing a formal complaint against Google. The FTC concluded that Google’s “practice of favoring its own content in the presentation of search results” did not violate U.S. antitrust laws. The FTC further determined that even though competitors might be negatively impacted by Google's changing algorithms, Google did not change its algorithms to hurt competitors, but as a product improvement to benefit consumers.
There are a number of arguments for and against search neutrality.
- Those who advocate search neutrality argue that the results would not be biased towards sites with more advertising, but towards sites most relevant to the user.
- Search neutrality encourages sites to have more quality content rather than pay to rank higher on organic results.
- Restrains search engines from only supporting their best advertisers.
- Search engines would allow traffic to sites that depend on visitors, keeping their results comprehensive, impartial, and based solely on relevance.
- Allows for organized, logical manipulation of search results by an objective, automatic algorithm. At the same time, disallowing underhanded ranking of results on an individual basis.
- Personalized search results might suppress information that disagrees with users' worldviews, isolating them in their own cultural or ideological "filter bubbles".
- Forcing search engines to treat all websites equally would lead to the removal of their biased look at the Internet. A biased view of the Internet is exactly what search users are seeking. By performing a search the user is seeking what that search engine perceives as the "best" result to their query. Enforced search neutrality would, essentially, remove this bias. Users continually return to a specific search engine because they find the "biased" or "subjective" results to fit their needs.
- Search neutrality has the possibility of causing search engines to become stagnant. If site A is first on a SERP (search engine results page) one month, and then tenth the next month search neutrality advocates cry "foul play," but in reality it is often the pages loss in popularity, relevance, or quality content that has caused the move. The case against Google brought forth by the owners of Foundem extoll this phenomenon and regulation could limit the search engine's ability to adjust ranking based on their own metrics.
- Proponents of search neutrality desire transparency in a search engine's ranking algorithm. Requiring transparent algorithms leads to two concerns. These algorithms are the companies private intellectual property and should not be forced into the open. This would be similar to forcing a soda manufacturer to publish their recipes. The second concern is that opening the algorithm would allow spammers to exploit and target how the algorithm functions directly. This would permit spammers to circumvent the metrics in place that prevent spammed websites from being at the top of a SERP.
- Removing a search engine's ability to directly manipulate rankings limits their ability to penalize dishonest websites that practice black hat techniques to improve their rankings. Any site who finds a way to circumvent the algorithm would benefit from a search engine's inability to manually decrease their ranking causing a spam site to gain high ranking for extended periods of time.
Google’s "Universal Search" system has been identified as one of the least neutral search engine practices,[according to whom?] and following the implementation of Universal Search websites, such as MapQuest, the company experienced a massive decline in web traffic. This decline has been attributed to Google linking to its own services rather than the services offered at external websites. Despite these claims, Google actually displays Google content on the first page, while rival search engines do not considerably less often than Microsoft's Bing which displays Microsoft content when rivals do not. Bing displays Microsoft content in first place more than twice as often as Google shows Google content in first place. This indicates that as far as there is any 'bias', Google is less biased than its principal competitor.
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Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google "BP," one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill....
- Danny Sullivan (16 May 2007). "Google 2.0: Google Universal Search". Search Engine Land. Third Door Media, Inc. Retrieved 2 August 2012.
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- "Google Maps Gaining On Market Leader Mapquest". Search Engine Land. January 10, 2008. Retrieved February 13, 2011.
- Joshua D. Wright (3 November 2011). "Defining and Measuring Search Bias: Some Preliminary Evidence" (PDF). Defining and Measuring Search Bias: Some Preliminary Evidence. International Center for Law and Economics. Retrieved 2 August 2012.