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Is Google's "Search Your World" Evil?

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Google’s personalization features seem to reward Google+ presences over every other type of social network. This has far-reaching consequences for the future of search. Google’s corporate value statement is summed up in one commandment: “Don’t be evil.” In this article, search expert James Mathewson (author of Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content) wonders whether the new functions favor Google’s own offerings to a degree that violates that commandment.

Throughout my articles published by InformIT, I have been a Google apologist. I have believed that Google really means it when it says “don’t be evil.” Part of that is that I need to believe it. I need to believe in an Internet where everybody and every company succeeds or fails on their own merits, and not by cheating.

As the de facto global arbiter of Internet success or failure, Google needs to do no evil. For Google to begin regular unethical practices would turn the Internet into a place where only those willing to cut corners or buy influence would win audience attention. That’s not the Internet I believe in.

How could Google do evil? It could, for example, give organic advantages to certain companies that are particularly good customers. This charge has long been made, as it was made against Google’s predecessors, such as AltaVista, which openly admitted that buying search ads helped organic position. In fact, Google is still litigating with the EU over the charge that larger companies with the economies of scale to buy more ad words have an unfair advantage in Google’s organic results.

I’ve never been sympathetic to those charges. I do believe that Google does no evil when it comes to drawing the line between advertising and organic ranking. That line is one of the key differentiators for the company. It makes no sense for Google to cross that line. If it did, it would lose its edge.

But my faith in the Google “Don’t be evil” mantra is starting to wane. The loss of faith started when I wrote my article on Google+. In the back of my mind, there was something fundamentally wrong about promoting organic search results because they had been +1ed or shared on Google+. But I withheld judgment at the time. I thought Google+ had the potential to be the kind of social network that satisfied a need without infringing on people’s privacy. Since that article, Google has made several moves that confirm some of my worst fears. I will spend the rest of this article detailing them.

Google+ Results Trump Everything

The first hint of problems came when I Googled my name. When I search on James Mathewson in Google, I get a page that looks like what is shown in Figure 1.

Ignoring the fact that there are dozens of people with my first and last name in the world, including a former U.S. senator and a prominent pediatric cardiologist, there’s something very wrong about these results. The digital presences where I have put most of my energies in the past couple of years are near the bottom of the page. The one that is the newest and in which I have least invested occupies the top two results. I’ve updated Google+ less than 10 times since I first joined the network late last year. On the other hand, I have more than 1600 tweets in my Twitter feed and more than 70 posts in my blog in the past two years.

I would spend more time updating my Google+ profile page, but it seems mostly pointless. I have a lot of friends and followers, but I rarely see anything from them in their profile pages. The vast majority of them spend what little extra time they have on other social networks, primarily Twitter and Facebook. There was a time when everyone got on Google+, as everyone seems to be clamoring to get on Pinterest now. But having a profile page and actively engaging with connections through the page are two different things.

My experience reflects the data. According to a report on the Wall Street Journal online, Google+ is a “virtual ghost town.” The author notes that recent visitors only spent an average of three minutes per month on Google+. Compare that to Facebook, on which the average user spends more than six hours per month, and all that sign-up data Google executives spout on analyst calls seem empty.

Indeed, the only reason I update Google+ is to promote my articles and blog posts so that they might show up higher in search engine results. I feel dirty doing this, because it seems like gaming the system. This is especially true as I have written articles here and elsewhere about how Google is making it ever more difficult to game the system—efforts I strongly support. It is highly suspicious that the only remaining way to game Google organic search results is by posting to Google+.

Despite all this, Google continues to push Google+ through its search results. When it released Search Plus your World, it made personal results highly dependent on social information about its users. Perhaps this is why I see mostly my own results when I search on my name. Perhaps the former senator who shares my name sees results about him on the first page.

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