The New York Times Wants to Change Your Google Habit

March 1, 2018

Sunday is a slightly less crazy day. I took time to scan “The Case Against Google.” I had the dead tree edition of the New York Times Magazine for February 25, 2018. You may be able to access this remarkable hybridization of Harvard MBA think, DNA engineered to stick pins in Google, and good old establishment journalism toasted at Yale University.


The author is a wildly successful author. Charles Duhigg loves his family, makes time for his children, writes advice books, and immerses himself in a single project at a time. When he comes up for air, he breathes deeply of Google outputs in order to obtain information. If the Google fails, he picks up the phone. I assume those whom he calls answer the ring tone. I find that most people do not answer their phones, but that’s another habit which may require analysis.

I worked through the write up. I noted three things straight away.

First, the timeline structure of the story is logical. However, leaving it up to me to figure out which date matched which egregious Google action was annoying. Fortunately, after writing The Google Legacy, Google Version 2.0, and Google: The Digital Gutenberg, I had the general timeline in mind. Other readers may not.

Second, the statement early in the write up reveals the drift of the essay’s argument. The best selling author of The Power of Habit writes:

Within computer science, this kind of algorithmic alchemy is sometimes known as vertical search, and it’s notoriously hard to master. Even Google, with its thousands of Ph.D.s, gets spooked by vertical-search problems.

I am not into arguments about horizontal and vertical search. I ran around that mulberry tree with a number of companies, including a couple of New York investment banks. Been there. Done that. There are differences in how the components of a findability solution operate, but the basic plumbing is similar. One must not confuse search with the specific technology employed to deliver a particular type of output. Want to argue? First, read The New Landscape of Search, published by Pandia before the outfit shut down. Then, send me an email with your argument.

Third, cherry picking from Google’s statements makes it possible to paint a somewhat negative picture of the great and much loved Google. With more than 60,000 employees, many blogs, many public presentations, oodles of YouTube videos, and a library full of technical papers and patents, the Google folks say a lot. The problem is that finding a quote to support almost any statement is not hard; it just takes persistence. Here’s an example:

We absolutely  do not make changes 5to our search algorithm to disadvantage competitors.

I actually believe this. The reason is that there are many cooks in the search kitchen. For more than a decade, changes have been accomplished by creating software wrappers which perform certain types of functions. Like Microsoft or IBM, digging into legacy code is not something that smart engineers want to do. The vaunted “algorithm” for search is a myth created by marketers (including Google management) to prevent people from X raying the innards of an ageing, somewhat clunky system. Google is now the computing equivalent of the IRS. My belief is that Google’s original invention may require a rip and replace strategy, but so far, spot fixes seem to be the order of the day. (How many of Google’s problems with its fancy new technology fall on their sword because the search infrastructure cannot deliver? I await the New York Times Magazine analysis of that issue.)

There are some other issues I noted with the write up.

My overall impression of the article’s main “story” is that Google is presented as a vindictive company (not a single person or a single team in London) which decided in a day or two to kill Foundem. Foundem was/is a price matching technology. The technology was/is pretty good. Google could not match it. Instead of buying the company, Google intentionally moved Foundem from the top of a search results list to the bottom. Only a tiny percentage of Google searchers look beyond the first page or two of results.

The question which the write up does not ask is, “If Google were smart, why wouldn’t Google just buy Foundem. Google bought Alon Halevy’s company because it could not do what Dr. Halevy’s findability system could deliver.

Instead, the giant Google killed Foundem.

My hunch is that Google probably did down check Foundem, but it wasn’t a decision made by the founders. Perhaps a vindictive Google marketer talked a search engineer based in London to tweak a filter. If that were the case, the only people who would know would be the search engineer and his or her marketing pal. Oh, the Foundem people would notice because they, like many others depending on Google for free traffic, ego surf to see how their digital baby is doing.

Now that down check, if it happened in the manner I hypothesize, does reflect badly on Google. The down check, if it took place, should be criticized. But as Google has expanded, its has compromised in some of its hiring. Marketers have to hit their numbers. The annual Google game plan is designed to motivate marketers to win. Google is an engineering outfit with an engineering mindset. Clever stuff is what makes Google tick today. Management is not a core competency at Google no matter what pundits and SEO mavens believe.

I am not saying Google is without major faults. I want to make clear that as company’s expand, governance becomes more difficult. The fault is its management or lack of it. I don’t want to let Google off the hook.

My view is that if the write up had dug more deeply into how Google’s marketing interacts with filters, a more helpful depiction of how search works would have resulted. A big time outfit like the New York Times has the resources, if not the information, to dig more deeply into what happened, how, and why. That, gentle reader, is a big time story. Google bashing is far too easy and, quite frankly, not that interesting.

In short, the article was journalistic entertainment, but the information presented did little to illuminate the risks of allowing an information monopoly to flourish for more than two decades. There’s more to this story than Foundem.

Perhaps the New York Times will run a follow up about the influence of marketing on the allegedly “objective” methods used to answer a user’s query? Perhaps Part 2 is already in the pipeline. Then there is Part 3: How Google has been outflanked by the Bezos bulldozer.

Stephen E Arnold, March 1, 2018


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