L021: BREAKING: Government Investigations Have Frozen Google's Manual Search Results

Editor's note: Matt Cutts of Google, in addition to refuting this story, pointed out in the comments that Google is still willing to take manual action on spam just as the company has done so for years. We regret that this point did not come out clearly in our original article.

by "the LAUNCH team"

Google’s search results have been "frozen" from anything but algorithmic changes due to multiple government investigations -- and possible investigations -- numerous sources have told LAUNCH.  

Google search results have always been primarily algorithmic. However, it has long been known inside the industry that some human "massaging" or "grooming" has occurred after the algorithm generated results. Sites that were good actors from Google’s perspective (read: Wikipedia, respected blogs, news sources) were moved up, and sites that were considered spam (or low quality) were moved down.

The human touch is not new, nor does Google deny it.

At Google’s founding, the human power came from Larry and Sergey, who created a ranking system that rewarded links coming from important sources and penalized those that did not. Those results fueled the PageRank algorithm, which Google still uses today to help determine search results (although to a much lower extent now that PageRank has been wildly gamed, and other signals of quality have emerged such as social sharing and time spent on a page).

Indeed, the term "Google Dance" historically referred to not only Google changing its search results, but the vibrant debate between content companies and Google staffers after those changes. Essentially, content creators have been negotiating with Google since the beginning of Google time.

Three of the top 400 content sites in the United States told LAUNCH that Google had manually tweaked results either up or down.

Google’s search teams have long battled internally over manual vs. algo changes. However, since shortly before the Panda algorithm update in February, the Brass have forbidden search teams to talk about, let alone manually change, search results.

Instead of debating confounding search results with partners (especially since the Panda update), Google has defaulted to sending content owners cookie-cutter legal messages that say no manual intervention is ever done to search results. This is, of course, disingenuous to many who have been in the industry and Danced with Google in the past.  

Traditionally, content companies feared criticizing Google publicly -- and they didn't have to because Google was willing to do the Google Dance. Post-Panda, Google has been plagued by embarrassing search results, and some companies in the industry have broken rank.

On March 5, Suite101 CEO Peter Berger wrote an open letter to Google's Matt Cutts defending the quality of Suite101’s content and asking Google to stay "committed" to treating content impartially (i.e., not favoring Google’s content over that of competing companies).

On May 5, HubPages CEO Paul Edmondson essentially accused Google of using its dominance in search to destroy competitors and build up its own content sites.

Those kind of aggressive call-outs were usually left to the SEOs of the world -- not professional CEOs. Edmondson’s piece was especially damaging to Google because it hit them right where they are being investigated -- and frankly are weakest -- their own content sites (Google Local, YouTube and Blogger).  

Our handicapping of the situation is that HubPages and Suite101 felt they had nothing left to lose, after the Panda smack down, by openly confronting and criticizing Google.

Additionally, content providers that once depended on Google search traffic have, in some cases, simply given up trying to work with the firm. Instead, they are focusing their energy exploring other traffic sources such as apps on the iPhone, iPad and Android platforms, as well as social traffic from Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

As to whether Google has gone pure algorithm in its search results, a Google spokesperson told us, "Computer algorithms are the most scalable way to deliver relevant results. However, manual controls are necessary to improve the user experience in very limited cases, such as security concerns, legal issues and spam."

LAUNCH translation: "99% of what we do is algorithmic, but we need to be able to correct the obvious mistakes that the algorithm is going to make. This is just common sense, and it’s kind of frustrating that the Obama administration is harassing us over this when Facebook is behaving 1,000x worse than we ever have."

Google believes its process for creating search results is a trade secret and should not be transparent, although Matt Cutts has previously argued -- correctly --  that Google has revealed many "secrets" over the years.

HubPages CEO Edmondson's claim about Google is exactly what the European Commission officially began investigating late last year. The Texas Attorney General’s office started its antitrust review of Google last July and is demanding detailed documents about its search practices.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which investigated (and settled with) Google for privacy violations around its Buzz social network in late March, is considering a broad antitrust case against Google according to a Bloomberg report last month.

When LAUNCH asked FTC spokesperson Claudia Borne Farrell if she would comment on whether the agency is planning to investigate Google’s search practices, she said, "No."

That sounds like a "yes" to us.

LAUNCH will continue to follow the story, and you can help by sending anonymous tips to tips@launch.is. If you send your message through an anonymous email service like send-email.org, we will not know your email or IP address. If you would like to talk to us directly, please call our tip line at 424-625-5281.


You can answer the following questions here.

    1. Do you believe Google has manually tweaked search results? Yes/No/Abstain
    2. Should Google be allowed to manually tweak search results? Yes/No/Abstain
    3. Should the federal government be looking into Google’s search market share? Yes/No/Abstain
    4. Has Google used its market position in an unfair manner? Yes/No/Abstain
    5. If yes, how has Google used its market position unfairly?

Further Reading

1. Texas Attorney General Investigating Google & Antitrust Issues. (Search Engine Land, Sept. 3, 2010)

2. Google Probe Said to Be Focus of Calls to Companies by FTC. (Bloomberg, April 5, 2011)

3. Open Letter from Suite101 CEO to Matt Cutts. (Suite101, March 5, 2011)

4. Panda Update Cripples Open Publishing Competition. (TechCrunch, May 5, 2011)

5. The Biggest Problem Of Google Search Post Panda Algorithmic Update. (Techie Buzz, May 9, 2011)

6. Antitrust: Commission probes allegations of antitrust violations by Google. (European Commission, Nov. 30, 2010)

#49: If the government wants to regulate your industry, you haven’t done a good enough job of regulating yourself.