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14 septembre 2010 2 14 /09 /septembre /2010 15:38

Google is baffled at the charge of search bias – it's all automated. But that is also its great weakness

There will be confusion and pain in Mountain View following the European commission's decision to begin preliminary investigations into whether Google has abused its dominance of internet search by (it is claimed) submerging results from rival sites. Not because Google's executives will think they have done any such thing – and it's entirely possible that they haven't    (Dell XPS M1210 Battery)   .

But because to them the idea that Google, the company where the algorithm rules above all, should do such a labour intensive thing as suppress particular sites is pretty much unthinkable. It goes against everything Google stands for – which is the machine, not the man        (Dell Studio XPS 1340 Battery)         .

Google was built on one fantastic rule: the sites that get linked to by other sites are higher up the reputation tree. That is the basis of its world-beating search engine. Once it had also figured out how to make money by selling ads against search results and web pages (done, again, with machines - you bid online to place an ad against a search term, and the computer chooses who wins), it could start piling on the profit. Which it has      (Dell Studio XPS 1640 Battery)        .

And that has allowed it to expand its ambition "to organise the world's information and make it accessible". That is actually its mission statement. (The stuff about "don't be evil"? Just advisement.)

For all its grand expansion, to video (YouTube), online processing (Google Appspot), books (Google Books), and even online payment systems (Google Checkout)–Google hews to one truth: humans aren't as good at doing things as machines, so you should let the machines do it        (Dell Vostro 1710 Battery)         .

Does the internet have lots of sites that just refer to themselves (to pretend they have lots of "links", to push themselves up the search results)? Tweak the algorithm to push them down. Are there lots of spam-laden sites that pretend to have whatever search term you're after to get up the results? Tweak them out too. The machine rules; the human tries to stay out of it, because no good can come of people trying to keep up with the scale of the internet      (Dell Vostro 1710 Battery)       .

If you had to hire people to sift through everything being uploaded to YouTube – more than 20 hours every single minute – you'd need a team of more than 3,600 people working eight-hour shifts every single day.

Google doesn't do that. It has about 20,000 staff worldwide, and it wants as few as possible doing grunt work like video reviews. Let the computer do it: so videos are checked (by a machine) to see if their soundtrack or visual fingerprint matches known copyrighted material. If so, it won't get up         (ASUS EEE PC900 battery)       .

But this focus on the machine does lead to a blind spot, as we'll see.

It was inevitable that the company's immodest ambition would, as the American media business journalist Ken Auletta describes it in his new book Googled, "wake up the bears" – those organisations and companies which had been comfortable where they were until this upstart came along        (ASUS EEE PC900 battery)         .

The Chinese government is already roused to anger by Google's electric-shock reaction to the discovery that its systems were hacked by people seeking information about Chinese dissidents. And now there's the European commission, which tends to gnaw and gnaw away until it gets what it wants, as Intel – fined €1bn last May for anticompetitive practices and Microsoft – obliged to allow European users to pick their own web browser on Windows 7, starting this week, because of the way it forced Internet Explorer on Windows users – have discovered      (Sony VGP-BPS13 battery)         .

So what does the European commission want? Initially, for Google to explain why companies such as Foundem, eJustice and Microsoft-owned Ciao don't seem to rank in its search results. Foundem, a British company, has tried without success to get an explanation since 2006     (sony vgp-bpl9 battery)        .

But in the longer term, it may want it to be less aggressive in how it tweaks its algorithms. That might be good for spammers (not that I'm suggesting any of the three complainants is; far more likely they are collateral damage of tweaks by Google). But in the longer term, the warning may be not to do what Microsoft did, and use its power in one field to try to overwhelm another         (Sony VGP-BPL11 battery)          .

That could be a good thing. Two weeks ago, Google launched "Buzz", its own effort to create a Twitter-style network for the 400 million users of Google Mail. It would immediately create a network of people you had swapped email with, and let you converse, Twitter-style, with them in short text bursts       (Sony VGP-BPL15 battery)         .

Except it had only been tested internally, among the algorithm-loving engineers. Unleashed on normal people, who exchange emails with people they hate, or want to keep separate the people they swap emails with, it created social collisions all over the place. Buzz outraged many; parents have discovered that it does not secure children from would-be stalkers      (Dell Inspiron E1505 battery )    .

It turns out that algorithms can't tell us everything about human nature. It was a moment when Google was suddenly caught in the headlights. And now it risks being mauled by the commission – if not over this, then over related matters. What will count then will be how the company recovers. Microsoft has not yet recovered from the battering it took from the US department of justice and the commission over its browser tactics. Google might – but how well it does will be down to the humans, not the machines       (Dell Latitude E6400 battery)             .

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