Google Search: Europe and Vague Fixes

October 1, 2013

I read “Google Offer May End Search Engine Case, Says EU Antitrust Chief.” Details are, well, sparse. Here’s a statement I noted:

Google proposed concessions in September, hoping to end a case which could otherwise lead to a fine of up to 10 percent of its global revenue, or $5 billion. Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told lawmakers in the European Parliament on Tuesday he believed the company’s offer made it easier for web users to see results from Google’s rivals in Internet searches. While he said he could not lay out the precise concessions offered by the U.S. company, he said they went a long way to addressing the antitrust authority’s concerns fully.

I recall reading that Google has made changes to its core search engine. A representative write up about these modifications appeared in “Google Alters Search to Handle More Complex Queries.” Again specifics to satisfy my curiosity eluded me. I did note this passage:

The company made the changes, executives said, because Google users are asking increasingly long and complex questions and are searching Google more often on mobile phones with voice search.

My view is that few outside of Google “know” what tweaks the ad-supported Web search system receives. In fact, I am not sure members of the search team know what changes have been made by other members of the search team over night. Google teams are not in one building or even in the same country and time zone.

My view is that Google is faced with a big challenge. As mobile usages outpaces desktop access, there is a looming revenue challenge. A typical search for a popular topic like “rental car” can present ads on the top of the page, in the left hand column, and sometimes at the bottom of the page. A mobile device screen is not suitable for high density ads which obliterate the allegedly “objective” and “relevant” results. I am not too good at math, but it seems that Google either has to charge more for mobile services, ramp up the marketing data and monetize that, figure out ways to generate more revenue, or do some fancy dancing to get more money from advertisers who think I want a video to run when I click a link displayed on a mobile device.

The notion of “tuning” is one that is not at the top of big thinkers minds. The concept of “precision” means zero to many legal eagles. The idea of “relevance” is also murky.

In short, ad supported online search is an advertising vehicle. Changes are designed to satisfy advertisers and stakeholders. Assuming that * any * ad supported search results are delivering information which satisfy traditional precision and recall methods or that the results are “objective” in the manner of the old SDC Orbit or Dialog Information systems were “objective” is fantasy in my opinion. Researchers beware. Some Web site operators may want to be on their toes as well.

Stephen E Arnold, October 1, 2013


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