Google hits back over algorithm dispute

Google on Thursday mounted a renewed defence of the way it ranks search results, as fresh questions emerged about its practice of sometimes manually intervening to override its automated ranking system.

The company has been forced onto the defensive by the disclosure earlier this week of a preliminary anti-trust review from the European Commission. Brussels is looking into complaints from three companies that Google’s search rankings and its related advertising system treat some competitors unfairly.

In a blog posting on Thursday, Amit Singhal, a Google employee responsible for the ranking system, claimed that the company’s algorithms produced better quality and more relevant results than one based on human intervention, though he admitted the system was far from perfect.

Other Google executives have also been at pains this week to stress the impersonal nature of Google’s ranking systems in an attempt to defuse any criticism that results can be manipulated to favour or disadvantage certain sites. Julia Holtz, Google’s European corporate counsel, told journalists in Brussels on Wednesday: “We don’t whitelist or blacklist anyone.”

However, fresh evidence emerged on Thursday that Google employees do sometimes override the system, at least when it comes to the automated process that determines the weighting given to search adverts in its Adwords system.

Foundem, one of the companies that has complained to Brussels, produced two e-mails that appeared to be from Google’s Adwords employees and which discussed the issue of “whitelisting”, or altering the system to improve the ranking of a particular result.

One e-mail said: “... I am still waiting to hear back from Fred as to where we are in regards to whitelisting. I do know that he has spoken with engineering and they have been looking further at the website to build your case.” In the other, a Google employee wrote that Foundem’s adverts would do better in Google’s advertising system after the Adwords team “facilitated a change in the site quality evaluation”, overriding what is normally an automated process.

A Google spokesperson refused to comment on the Foundem claims, but acknowledged Google sometimes manually alters rankings in its search engine to counter distortions that might arise from algorithms. The spokesperson did not disclose how often such changes were made, but said they were rare.

● European data protection regulators have called on Google to halve the length of time it retains images in its controversial Street View service, which displays detailed street-level pictures. Reducing the amount of time to six months would “strike the right balance between the protection of privacy” and ensuring a high quality service, according to a working group representing national regulators.

A history of raising hackles

● March 12 2008
Google completes its $3.1bn acquisition of online advertising group DoubleClick after approval from European competition authorities, after intensive year-long investigation by antitrust authorities.

● November 5 2008
Google and Yahoo abandon search advertising pact after US Department of Justice signals it will block the deal.

● May 8 2009
US regulators investigate possible competition issues raised by chief executive Eric Schmidt’s position as a director on Apple’s board. He steps down from Apple’s board in August.

● August 28 2009
Italian antitrust investigators descend on Google’s Milan offices, concerned that Google News, which uses summaries of web stories, represents an abuse of its dominant internet position.

● September 2 2009
The German government is first foreign administration to ask a US court to block a deal between Google and US authors and publishers about web access to old books, saying it would “irrevocably” weaken global copyright law.

● September 10 2009
Google bows to political pressure from the European Union and will reduce the time it keeps user details in its search logs.

● November 14 2009
The Swiss data protection watchdog takes Google to the country’s Federal Administrative Court over an alleged failure to protect people’s privacy on its Street View website.

● February 4 2010
US DoJ urges a New York Court not to approve the amended Google Book Search deal with authors and publishers, citing copyright issues.

● February 23 2010
Two senior Google executives and a former employee are found guilty in an Italian court of breach of privacy in a case involving film of a disabled boy on Google Video.

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