Google Blogoscoped

Monday, January 22, 2007

Google and the Web Democracy is a hate site run by white pride organization It also happened to be linked right from the homepage of with a large center image. The Rock the Vote website aims to promote “political power for young people,” and this was a classic case of of web voting – a link from site A to site B – gone wrong. So how could this “link vote” happen? Hans Riemer at the Rock the Vote blog explains (my emphasis):

To identify the external link, our webmaster searched Google and chose one of the top results, a website that, at a quick glance, appears to be a tribute to Dr. King with speeches, photos and a special emphasis on the holiday ( - but don’t go there). But appearances (and, apparently, popular results on Google) are deceptive. The website is a racist site that disrespects Dr. King and insults all of us who cherish his advocacy for justice. On behalf of RtV, I would like to extend our deepest apologies for this mistake. The link was immediately corrected.

Perhaps the link was corrected “immediately,” but not fast enough for Google to not see it (above screenshot with the link is from Google’s cache)... and potentially, assign some additional “weight” to the hate site. Seth Finkelstein comments, “Remember, hate groups can do search engine optimization and marketing too!” And then, a positive feedback pattern of the web shows its face: sites that appear high in Google will be able to potentially strengthen their position over time because more people link to them (because they found the site in Google, not because they carefully analyzed its merits), triggering a vicious circle.

Now, I don’t know how received such a high position in Google. Perhaps they did some search engine optimization, and perhaps they even did some sneaky SEO. But for the sake of argument of the bigger issue behind this specific case, let’s say they didn’t – that they relied only on “marketing” their site well socially, without resorting to technical abuses, linking to it from white pride sites and informing “mainstream webmasters” of their URL. And indeed, these techniques don’t rely on SEO, but on the basic pattern of democracies: votes count. Convince people to vote for you, through whatever reasonable or unreasonable (or even deceptive) campaign claims you have, and you get more votes, which gives you more power. Why would it be any different with Google, who say they “believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites” in their search results?

We may see a flaw in the system, but it’s not a flaw that’s restricted to the online word – or in any way specific to Google’s interpretation of the “democracy algorithm.” We all vote with our links, be it in our a blog roll linking to a befriended blog, in an article’s link to a Wikipedia entry, or on our homepage linking to some mainstream news source. (This being a public vote, we help market the site we point to even if there’d be no such thing as “linkjuice.”)

And lobby groups, on- and offline, pro or con any topic – Stormfront too is a kind of lobby group – market their message trying to get free air-time. The more trusted the channel they get their message into, the more worthwhile for them. In Germany, for example (and I assume it’s the same in other countries), lobby agencies create free content for TV stations. These reports pass of as neutral news if you only give them that “quick glance” the Rock the Vote blog mentioned. If your job is to produce content everyday, confronted with tight deadlines, isn’t it great that someone sends you some free content for you to use? This way, a “commercial” can make it into seemingly neutral mainstream news programs, exposing it to a larger audience (some of whom will eat the report up as “fact”).

Here’s the flaw, or necessity, in the system: inevitably, free voting sometimes leads to “bad” results (“free voting” is not to be confused with a successful dark hat search engine optimization trick, which rather resembles the “freedom” to break the ballot machine). “Bad” is hard to define, because one’s favored person, group or opinion may be considered “bad” by someone else. The issue is less subtle with, because here we might be able to argue that the majority of “voters” indeed considers this a bad result; it is a minority opinion. But that leads me to a second observation: having a “bad” (or minority) result in the top 10 is not necessarily bad for the system.

A good Google top 10 to me is one that shows pros and cons to an issue, that mixes the good with the bad, that shows friend and foe. Why do I want to see an “enemy” in the results? So that I will:

In other words: while I despise Holocaust denial, I also despise not being able to research Holocaust denial... to be forced to see the world through a pair of “pink glasses,” as a German proverb goes. Google today has three main features which push to give you different views on an issue:

  1. They seem to collect different clusters and counter clusters within the top 10. I’m not able to tell how successful they are overall (we’d need to check millions of results), but I do believe we can see them try – as an example, when you search for the ambiguous jaguar, you will see results for Jaguar cars, jaguar the animal, and Apple’s Jaguar operating system.
  2. Google introduced a “related searches” feature right below the top 10 organic search results. It will suggest different new search queries based on your existing one. Search for abortion, and Google will, among other queries, offer you to search for “pro abortion” and “pro life” – two opposing sides on the issue.
  3. Google results sometimes offer a “split view” on results. Search for ct, and after the third result you’ll see a line introducing an intersection titled “see results for ct scan”. After showing you three results for ct scan, the “normal” results will continue. (Note: results vary depending on position and the Google datacenter you get, so you may not be able to reproduce all or any of these.)

But it doesn’t always work that well with Google. Case in point: the approximately 198,000 pages of are completely missing in German Google, due to some censorship requests Google doesn’t disclose in detail. Case in point: as Seth Finkelstein reported, Google worldwide censors newsgroup messages alleging Nazi gas chambers didn’t exist (click “repeat the search with the omitted results included” and scroll down to “In response to a legal complaint we received, we have removed one or more messages”). The argument of free speech is very prevalent in the US, but in Germany, you will hear many people arguing that these things better be hidden from public view (every society gets the laws it deserves, right?). I believe a “free speech” result in the style Google often (but not always) employs, and in fact, a result which artificially increases minority opinions in the top 10 – no one will look at result 65 – is the real democratic solution.

People disliked seeing on Google’s #1 spot, and I agree – that’s a skewed result, because it promotes a minority opinion (one that I think is bad, but that’s just my wholly subjective, personal opinion) beyond its deserved place according to a working web democracy. This prompted some to employ counter-lobbying in the form of a googlebomb, which already shows some success. What we may worry about more, though, is when such minority opinions if they exist in reality become either ignored, or worse, artificially suppressed with the help of our virtual gatekeepers.

And indeed, the “vicious circle” pattern doesn’t just apply to pages Google shows: it also inversely applies to pages Google hides. When a site like – Human Rights Watch – is missing in Google China due to government censorship requests, as it does since January 2006, then less people from China will link to the site. Less links will result in a lower position in Google in the future, meaning the site will get even less links, and so on. (There are stronger “gatekeepers” in China that diminish the chances you’ll link to the site – the government, which will pressure you if you do link to it, and the ISPs, who may block the site altogether – but Google is one of the gatekeepers also removing traces of the site. Though pragmatically speaking, with enough people talking about the censorship, and linking to, the effect may about neutralize itself in non-Chinese Google.)

What we end up here, at least if we believe in web democracy, are different forms of responsibility to keep gatekeepers more neutral:

[Hat tip to Natasha Robinson and Seth Finkelstein!]


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