February 24, 2010 7:31 pm

Formulas at heart of Google complaint

Algorithms are the “secret sauce” behind Google’s business, much like the recipe for Coca-Cola, and an important background to the antitrust complaints filed against it at the European Commission.

They are highly complex mathematical formulae. Google’s algorithm draws on 200 factors and is tweaked 400 times a year by an army of engineers, which the company uses to determine how to rank the search results it displays on its internet search site.

Google rankings can be vital to a company’s business. About 67 per cent of internet users go to its search engine to locate information, and most will only click on links on the first page of Google’s search results. A low ranking means invisibility.

The secretive nature of the algorithm is at the heart of the antitrust complaints the company faces in Brussels. Companies find it hard to understand why their rankings go up and down, and Google stands accused of manipulating the formula to discriminate against competitors.

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The complaints from the Foundem, ejustice.fr and Ciao websites, fall into two parts. One is to do with Google’s ranking system, with the three sites claiming they were penalised for being niche search services, competing with Google’s own search offerings. Google said the sites were ranked low because its algorithm is designed to weed out sites that are not useful for internet users.

“A website’s position in our search results is determined based on a number of factors designed to provide users with helpful, accurate search results. In broad terms, webmasters can improve the ranking of their sites by increasing the number of high-quality sites that link to their pages,” Google said. However, Foundem said that it eventually received a higher ranking, not because of changes to the site, but through three years of appeals to Google.

“Google doesn’t like to talk about penalties and blacklisting. But senior Google executives told us that Foundem had been struck by an automated penalty designed to detect travel search sites,” said Shivaun Raff, part of the husband and wife team that founded Foundem.

Dominique Barella, the co-founder of ejustice.fr, said the legal search website had been de-ranked by Google three times since 2007.

Twice the company had succeeded in improving its ranking by making changes to the site, only to be bumped again. They concluded there was systematic discrimination and started formulating a complaint to the European Commission.

However, analysts were sceptical whether complaints by such relatively small websites would carry weight, when bigger competitors have not been affected.

“From what I’ve seen of the case, it doesn’t really hold water. I can go to Google and find Microsoft [in a search]. If Google was trying to prevent somebody from showing up well, I think they would be blocking Microsoft first,” said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land.

The other element of the complaint is to do with Google Universal Search service, which provides links to Google’s maps, price comparison, videos, news and other services as part of the results.

Foundem claims Google uses Universal Search to unfairly promote its own services above those of rivals. Since Google launched Universal Search in 2007, other map and price comparison services, such as MapQuest, Streetmap, Shopping.com and Kelkoo, have seen their visitor numbers drop, while Google’s map and pricing services have grown.

Google maintains Universal Search is designed to help users, and its services only rank highly if they are popular.

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