The New York Times published today an editorial calling for “exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses”.
Their reasoning is as follows:
“Google handles nearly two-thirds of Internet search queries worldwide. Analysts reckon that most Web sites rely on the search engine for half of their traffic. When Google engineers tweak its supersecret algorithm — as they do hundreds of times a year — they can break the business of a Web site that is pushed down the rankings.”
The article concludes:
“Google provides an incredibly valuable service, and the government must be careful not to stifle its ability to innovate.”
“If Google is to continue to be the main map to the information highway, it concerns us all that it leads us fairly to where we want to go.”
Google is such an obvious target for this. Earlier this year, European regulators launched an inquiry asking Google to reveal its search ranking algorithm.
Funny how no one is aiming the same questions at Facebook though.
The Facebook Newsfeed, for which Facebook was awarded a patent earlier this year, is driven by a sophisticated algorithm which determines – on an individual basis – what you – and 500 million others – will be seeing when you open up your Facebook. For many people, it’s the ultimate “What’s up” source, telling them in a glance what’s happening with their friends and with the world around them.
Google displays its search results in response to a user actively searching for something. These results are mostly impersonal – for most queries, two people performing the same query will get pretty much the same result. There are lots of entities monitoring these search results, observing changes in the results and in the order on a daily basis, and reporting on these.
Facebook’s feed on the other hand is the perfect source of relevant information for the passive user. You just open up Facebook.com and you get fed (!) with the feed. Only you – and Facebook – know what’s shown to you on that feed.
Who determines which items will be on that feed?
An algorithm which decides what you will want to know.
One can easily imagine how some stock prices may go up or down, public opinions change one way or another, or even presidential candidates may elected or voted out, based on what information will be displayed in that feed.
It doesn’t have to be malicious. Even an error creeping into one of Facebook’s 1,800 database servers (as of 2008) could have far reaching effects.
Now that’s an algorithm – and an accompanying execution system – that I’d like to see regulators looking at.
Social networks hold an ever increasing power over our life & society. It’d be nice if we balance the great power we put in the hands of the global social networks with greater responsibility than we can expect only from governments and regulators.