Turning inner space into outer space

November 28, 2015

Google shouldn't take our trust for granted

Google has become so dominant that we often don’t even talk about searching any more. We google it.

Worldwide, Google’s search engine market share is estimated at around 90 per cent. It makes you wonder why Bing and Yahoo even bother trying.

But the trouble with a having near monopoly on a service is that there is always the temptation to abuse that position. This happened recently when Google changed its search results so that its own products ranked higher than those of competitors.

When looking at search results, people tend to believe that the closer the result is to the top, the better it must be. And generally speaking that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So if you do a search on “restaurant reviews,” then it is fair to expect that the best ones are at the top. I tried this search with Google and got results from TripAdvisor and Yelp. That seems about right. These are both popular sites for restaurant reviews, and you would expect them to have enough reviews to make a visit to them worthwhile.

Now, apparently Google Plus has a similar service that you’ve probably never heard of. Google Plus has never reached mainstream popularity, and could use a little help with promotion. And what better way to do this than with search results.

That’s what happened last weekend. Suddenly, the most “popular” place to find reviews was with Google Plus. TripAdvisor and Yelp were buried.

Google claims it was a mistake and that things are now back to normal. But just a few days of this “error” cost Yelp millions of dollars.

“Far from a glitch, this is a pattern of behavior by Google,” said its CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.

This kind of goosing of the rankings is so obvious that Google was bound to get called on it. But it makes me wonder if they’re also doing it in more subtle ways that fly under the radar. If this company, with so much power, is to maintain any kind of credibility, it needs our trust.

Take privacy, for instance. It’s fairly well know by now that when we use Google’s services — search, email, docs, maps, etc. — we’re paying by giving up a little bit of our privacy. Everything we do is logged and aggregated to help them sell advertising.

As long as we know we’re making this deal, it seems fair. After all, Google does offer some excellent services, so why not take advantage of them.

I just wish they would be more transparent about it.

For example, recently when clicking on Google search results, I found it took a long time for the websites to load. It got so bad that the web browser timed out — essentially gave up trying.

The reason for this might be the incredibly long web addresses you get in Google’s search results. Try right-clicking on one of the results and choose Copy URL (or something similar), then paste this into a text editor.

What you’ll get is something like this: plus a string of gobbledygook that only the most dedicated computer programmer could love. In the midst of it all will be something familiar: the actual web address that you were looking for.

Search “food network” in Google and look at the mess you get. Try the same search in a competing search engine called Duck Duck Go and you get this, plain and simple:

So what’s the deal?

Google is not content to merely present you with a list of search results. It wants to know which one you clicked on. So instead of going directly to the website of your choice, you first have to make a little side trip to Google’s servers.

Normally, this happens so quickly that you don’t even notice it. But it’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking that your computer or the Internet is slow. It might be Google’s fault.

Lately I’ve been trying out Duck Duck Go. This is a fairly new service that promises complete privacy — no tracking of any kind. Their results are good and getting better, plus they take you directly to the websites.

On the other hand, my Google result for “food network” was better in the sense that it gave me the Canadian (.ca) version of this website, while Duck Duck Go gave me the U.S. (.com) version. Google can track your location, right down to the city. And this helps provide more relevant results. In some ways this is good thing and in some ways it’s creepy. Duck Duck Go won’t automatically track your location, but you can use its settings to let it know what country you live in.

I just wish they would tell us in plain, open language what exactly is going on. The explanation needs to be up-front where everyone can see and understand it.