What Computers Can’t Do (and Google Should)

To what extent are Google’s unpaid results driven by algorithms, and to what extent do individuals make decisions about rankings? Though many suspected the latter, it’s been hard to prove it’s a regular occurrence. But Seth Finkelstein now believes a line has been crossed with Google’s latest efforts to control popular sites’ sale of links for cash:

[According to Danny Sullivan,] “Google stressed . . . that the current set of PageRank decreases is not assigned completely automatically; the majority of these decreases happened after a human review. That should help prevent false matches from happening so easily.”

I don’t want to create false incentives, and human review is good of course. Yet I can’t help thinking that we’ve now crossed a line here. Perhaps with the best of intentions, for the most worthy of reasons. But still, we’re now on the other side of some divide.

Now, there really is someone sitting in a room thinking along the lines of : “Hmm, the algorithm says you have Pagerank 9, but looking at your site, you’re using your pagerank-powers for link-profit, so let’s turn it down a few notches, perhaps to Pagerank 7, so it’s not quite as attractive. If in the future you prove to be a more moral vessel of our power, we may restore you to full strength.”

That’s a change. Good or bad, it’s different from what’s been the case before.

I have a few thoughts on the change, and on some parallel controversies, below the fold.

First, it’s important to contextualize Google’s business-oriented manual review in the larger struggle to force responsibility onto the search engine. Consider the following controversies in Brazil, and how Google and MySpace are responding:

In December of 2005, [Brazilian activist Thiago] Tavares set up a nonprofit group called SaferNet. Modeled on U.S. organizations, the site allows users to report online crimes via its Web site. Within weeks, he says, the site was receiving hundreds of complaints. More than 90% were about [Google-owned] Orkut. Mr. Tavares began pointing out problems to Internet companies. He says Yahoo . . . and Microsoft . . . promptly removed material he flagged as offensive and promised to hold copies for authorities. . . .

But the young lawyer says Google gave him the brush-off. He says Mr. Hohagen, the head of Google’s Brazil operation, didn’t reply to several requests for meetings. In early 2006, Mr. Tavares gave a Google press officer a CD containing 220 pages of evidence of alleged Orkut crimes. He never heard back.

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Addressing such problems can prove expensive. News Corp.’s MySpace faced similar complaints in recent years. Now, company executives say, each of the eight million new pictures uploaded to its site each day is reviewed at least once by a human being. That program costs MySpace several million dollars a year.

The MySpace experience suggests that, once a site has a critical mass of revenue, perhaps it ought to have responsibility to dedicate some portion of that revenue to policing itself. If computers can’t do that policing, humans must be employed.

So what are the implications of increasingly direct manual intervention in the world of search and social networking (and their potential merger)? Both PageRank penalties and photo-reviewing are commendable steps in themselves, but they also suggest larger responsibilities for search engines. For example, Google’s decision to penalize link-sellers’ organic results suggests a larger non-commercialization norm for its own organic results. Moreover, if it can manage to analyze and adjust the PageRank of influential pages for business reasons, it ought to be more open to challenges to rankings based on public policy. Its concession to “asterisk” the high rank of anti-Semitic sites might lead to other examples of commendable openness.

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