Google’s algorithms – secret recipe or evil formula?

Rumours, insinuations and accusations have been bubbling around for a while now, but today’s announcement that the European Commission has launched a preliminary anti-monopoly probe into Google’s affairs is the first concrete action to challenge the firm’s tactics.

Brief summary without getting too technical – Google allegedly artificially demotes articles in its search results to discourage users from visiting particular companies.

Google’s response to today’s allegations has been simply to swat them aside, claiming “this kind of scrutiny goes with the territory when you are a large company.” They will also be encouraged that much of the disquiet can be traced back to Microsoft, making the claims seem like a case of sour grapes.

Google would also argue that its search engine algorithms are as much a part of its unique appeal and success as, say, Coca Cola’s or KFC’s recipes are part of theirs. SEO experts feel they have a general idea of how Google works, but many of the intricate vagaries and updates remain closely guarded secrets only revealed to an inner cabal. Google believe this is its intellectual property, and that making too much of the information available would weaken its position and open the company up to its competitors. All companies have their own ideas, and in a free society, they should have the right to hold onto them shouldn’t they?

The position is weakened somewhat by the fact that Google’s formulas are constantly being tweaked and updated. Coca Cola and KFC introduce new products, but their core offering remains basically the same as it has always been. Google can change its algorithms at a whim, constantly updating and reacting to patterns as it likes.

Many in the industry have a love/hate relationship with Google. For some, Google is a team of evil scientists, seconded in Silicon Valley bunkers coming up with ever more diabolical schemes to rule search engines and, one day, maybe even achieve total world domination. Google Government anyone? For others a paragon of what can be achieved through always being one step ahead of the competition.

My suggestion to Google would be: a little transparency can go a long way. Give us a crumb of insight, enough to dampen the criticism, but you can always leave your audience wanting more.

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