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Google Businesses The Internet

The Gray Areas of Search-Engine Law 60

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the i-lost-my-tort dept.
pasquafa writes "Here is a very smart article on the future of search engine legal controversies. Let's just say that the Google book search is just the start of the problems! Google thinks it's a newspaper and wants First Amendment protection to do whatever it pleases."
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The Gray Areas of Search-Engine Law

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  • by ps236 (965675) on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:22AM (#22234438)
    Whilst I agree mostly with Google wanting to keep their search engine ranking algorithms secret, I think it's too easy for people to get dumped at the bottom of the rankings without a clue why.

    IMV, it'd be a good thing for someone to be able to pay a (non-trivial) amount of money (say $500) to Google and have them give general feedback on why your page is ranked low - eg 'too many repeated words' or 'irrelevant words' or 'too many crosslinks to bad sites' or whatever, rather than the current scenario of you just being left in the dark with a company which can't make any sales because Google's arbitrary ranking system has taken a dislike to your site.

    Being able to pay to have Google re-evaluate your site earlier would be a good thing as well. (Not to be able to increase your ranking, but if you found a problem which you have since fixed).

    JM2P

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:32AM (#22234564)
      If you really care about your site ranking, hire an SEO. They handle enough pages they'll know what works and what doesn't. If you depend on the listing for your business, maybe you should be buying an ad instead of depending purely on your search rank.
      • by T-Bone-T (1048702)
        SEOs know what works and doesn't, until Google changes the algorithm. Now you're ranked at the bottom with only the knowledge that something somewhere changed.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ps236 (965675)
        SEOs are very good at getting pages to the top of Google's listings for a few days, then to the bottom of their listings for a few years.

        FWIW, we do buy ads, but that's not the point. Many people ignore the paid ads on something like Google and just look at the 'proper' listings.

        It is quite common for companies to have a working business one day, and then the next, for some unknown reason their site is now listed on page 972 of Google's results, so their business goes down the chute.

        This happens because Goo
        • by greenbird (859670) * on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @05:18PM (#22238836)

          It is quite common for companies to have a working business one day, and then the next, for some unknown reason their site is now listed on page 972 of Google's results, so their business goes down the chute.

          This happens because Google change some arbitrary parameter

          No, this happens because your business model is idiotic and doomed to failure if it relies on advertising controlled by and provided gratis by another company. Are you going to let Google view all your trade secrets that are critical to the success of your business?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        The problem with SEO companies is that they often artificially inflate the actual value of sites in Google's result pages, thereby degrading the actual quality of Google's service. In any given industry/topic/category/whatever, if the top 20 sites got there because they were heavily "SEO"'d this presents a huge problem. Right now it's not too bad just yet, but since the whole SEO market/industry was coined and broke on to the scene, you can see Google's search quality degrade. Case in point, I did two se
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by linhux (104645)
        No. SEOs are pure evil, and just make the problem worse by actively trying to prevent Google from even trying to be a neutral and impartial observer of link quality.

        What you should do is hire a competent web site builder. They should take care of making your site look good, both with regards to technical validity and usability. Only when your site actually is good, then Google has a fair chance of judging if it deserves a high ranking. As soon as you try to make your site look more important than it is, a s
        • by Ajehals (947354) <a.halsall@pirateparty.org.uk> on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @02:06PM (#22236452) Homepage Journal
          A reputable SEO should really only be doing what you suggest in your second paragraph, they should be making sure that you page does not contain barriers to inclusion in any given index and preferably ensure that what content you have is easily indexed. Any SEO that engages in practices that 'game' (the more common tactics being comment spam type operations and link exchanges) search engines aren't worth dealing with, primarily because you will find your site way down in the rankings or de-listed when Google, Yahoo, Microsoft et al realise what's going on.

          So, no they are not evil, they may be better informed than an average web design company with regard to what to do and what not to do when it comes to a website that you would like to be indexed (all flash site with no indexable text? utterly standards un-compliant code? all your content 90% of the way down the page if you look at the source? Not a good idea.). A decent web designer should be all you need though, but then they tend to be more expensive than many of the $50 a site designers out there.
        • Google neutral? Impartial?
          HAH!
    • by Red Pointy Tail (127601) on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:36AM (#22234594)
      Do Hollywood studios have the right to question Ebert on his methodology? No!- if you get a crappy review, too bad. All these is protected First Amendment free speech. I don't see why Google should be required by law to publish how they rank.

      Some other forms of ranking (like university rankings) disclose their methodology because it gives them more credibility, not because the law requires them to do so. It is to their own interest to do so. On the other hand, Google doesn't - for trade secrecy, and to avoid it being gamed. All these in in TFA.

      Right now Google basks in its credibility - that it is the most relevant search engine around, which they achieved without needing to disclose their methodology. We trust Google's 'review' enough to not bother how it is achieved.
      • by garcia (6573)
        We trust Google's 'review' enough to not bother how it is achieved.

        No, we don't "trust" them with anything. We search for something and obviously relevant results are returned. It's immediately noticeable when Google starts returning not-so-relevant results [slashdot.org] and thus we don't need to know their methodology. When Universities publish their methods it's because they are sometimes drawing conclusions that aren't obvious to the naked eye, especially for the lay person. Google doesn't need to do that IMHO.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by MikeBabcock (65886)
        That's a very apt comparison -- Google links to content and ranks it much like reviewers rank and list movie information. They provide a listing of content available and their own "personal" opinion on that content. If you really want to FIND the content, you could just type in the address or use a specialized index or directory and not depend on Google.

        If you don't want ranked information in your searching, don't use a search engine. That said, I could see Google adding options like "sort by oldest entr
      • by T-Bone-T (1048702)
        In Hollywood, if you get a bad review, you at least know why you got a bad review: it is in the review itself!
      • by ps236 (965675)
        >Do Hollywood studios have the right to question Ebert on his methodology? No!- if you get a crappy review, too bad. All these is protected First Amendment free speech.

        I agree

        BUT! A movie reviewer will usually say WHY they thought the movie was crap (possibly in the vain hope it would improve things in the future).

        All google say is '1/10' that's it. They don't say '1/10 - poor storyline' or whatever, just '1/10'

      • Do Hollywood studios have the right to question Ebert on his methodology?

        This really begs the question because it depends on what Ebert says in his review. If he says that you should not go see this movie because the director is a known pedophile and that statement is false, then Hollywood can sue Ebert and get discovery into his methodology. The legal distinction is between opinion which is generally not actionable under the libel laws and false statements of fact which may be actionable under the libel laws if other criteria are met. That opinion vs fact distinction is not as

        • by profplump (309017)
          This really begs the question because it depends on what Ebert says in his review. If he says that you should not go see this movie because the director is a known pedophile and that statement is false, then Hollywood can sue Ebert and get discovery into his methodology. The legal distinction is between opinion which is generally not actionable under the libel laws and false statements of fact which may be actionable under the libel laws if other criteria are met.

          Your analogy fails in application to Google.
          • Again, what they are saying and how it will be characterized is not so clear cut. Google's claim, whether express or implied, is that they will return search results that are relevant to your search query. When you are put on the bottom, the implied statement is "Don't go there, it's not relevant". That may or may not be actionable; it's just not clear.

            The Ebert analogy wasn't mine. My point was that the original Ebert analogy fails to address the underlying issue of what exactly is being said in each cas

            • by Sancho (17056)
              When you are on the bottom, it means, "This is less relevant than the higher results" (or more accurately, our algorithm considers this to be less relevant.) If it was irrelevant, it shouldn't be returned at all.

              Regardless, neither result is fact. One result is more deterministic and less prone to human error, but that doesn't mean that it isn't still subjective.
          • by jc42 (318812)
            Google doesn't say "Don't go here because this site looks spammy" they just say "Don't go here" by putting those results at the bottom of the page.

            Actually, google does something very much like that. I've seen a number of search results that have one or more sites labeled with their "This site may harm your computer" warning. This means that their search code has detected malware on the site. It's interesting that this sometimes shows up in the first page of matches. So they're not actually using it as
    • by owlnation (858981) on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:40AM (#22234632)
      It's not a bad idea, but really the best solution for everyone (including Google) is for Google to have serious competition. The rest will all take care of itself.

      11 years after Google appears on the scene and yet NO challengers? Lame. Search is far, far from perfect, there is room for competition.
      • How is competition the best solution for Google? When a company doesn't have serious competition they can sell their product for a very large profit. This is how newspapers prospered for a century. They were local monopolies that could charge advertisers whatever they please. The customer had to consume newspaper because it was the only news source in town. This situation produced amazing returns for newspaper owners. Competition harms profits but is great for consumers. But saying it would be good for Goog
      • I wish there were a good alternative to Google, as there are some things I really dislike about their search engine, especially the lack of decent advanced options when searching. Unfortunately, all the others I've tried have been abysmal. How hard can it really be to create a decent search engine? Not stellar, maybe, but at least somewhat decent? Is that too much to ask?
        • Like what? (Score:2, Informative)

          by zogger (617870)
          Just wondering, what options would you like to see? When I am having a hard time with google, I make use of the negative/do not show - modifier, helps eliminate all the first few pages spam that way by seeing what their search term words are and dumping those. It takes two steps that way, because you have to check it out first, whatever they are using, but then usually gives much better results on the second "real" search then.
          • One of my main pet peeves is the inability to search for anything with non alphanumeric characters in it. Google just strips them out. When I enter in something in quotes, I'd like to search for exactly what I entered. I've also found their language filters to be spotty at best, turning up sites that given the search options shouldn't be on the list. Another thing that would be nice but I won't hold my breath for would be the option to search only sites that aren't selling anything. Froogle is fine and good
      • There have been several challengers, but so far Google has won out. The human-powered element is cropping up in some of the latest sites trying to get in to the game, like ChaCha.com [chacha.com]. My hope is that connecting users with a wide base of human "search experts" will eventually make it much harder for search engines to arbitrarily tamper with their data. Granted, we are still a long way from reaching that ideal, but it sounds like a good direction to go. Especially if you have any control over what search
    • At least right now, if we are to believe Google, PageRank is actually neutral. It's entirely based on actual content and/or popularity.

      Allowing any additional service here for money seems like it'd be a step towards destroying that democratic ideal. Should someone who can afford to spend thousands on SEO, and an occasional $500 to Google, be given any advantage in normal (non-ad) search results over a community run, nonprofit (.org) website? I don't think we want to go there.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ps236 (965675)
        But the advantage would be minimal.

        Money will always give an advantage - with Google, I can buy for ads to be put at the top/side of the search results page. So, money gives me an advantage.

        All my 'ideal' would give would be a general explanation of why a search ranking is low, NOT an improvement in the search ranking.

        Page ranking might be "neutral" (not directly affected by anyone at Google), but it's not that simple. If you repeat words, your ranking will drop. If you have duplicated sites, your ranking w
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by greenbird (859670) *

          All my 'ideal' would give would be a general explanation of why a search ranking is low, NOT an improvement in the search ranking.

          If you know why a page is ranking low isn't that telling you how to improve your ranking? Isn't that just a little bit obvious? It allows anyone to game the system. Google's whole search business is built on giving what is at least perceived as neutral rankings based on relevance. If that perception is lost Google's credibility goes out the window with it and that would kill Google's search business.

      • At least right now, if we are to believe Google, PageRank is actually neutral. It's entirely based on actual content and/or popularity.

        That's simply incorrect. The neutrality (or more precisely, bias) of a ranking does not just depend on the ranking algorithm itself, but also on how the ranking is being displayed.

        Here's an example: suppose you're ranking three sites A, B, C, and your algorithm gives the positions A=1, B=2, C=3. Now you decide that B should be hidden from your display for some re

    • by vertinox (846076)
      If your business model relies on free but high Google page rank, you might consider another business model... Namely one that involved buying ads so that when someone searches they get you above the first "free" hit.
    • If that is your view, then why don't you start a competing search engine company with that as a primary feature? That's a more just path than using the heavy hand of the law to force Google to do something they do not think is in their interest.
    • by TheLink (130905) on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @02:04PM (#22236426) Journal
      I see so many people who want their sites to be the number one result on Google.

      But 99.999999% of these shouldn't even be in the first page.

      I bet hardly any of them can give a good reason why their site should be on the first page. They will say stupid stuff like "I want to make more money".

      I don't swear often, but guess what, if that's the sort of reason they give, _I_ don't want their FUCKING sites ever appearing in my search results.

      These bunch are usually the same breed as spammers - they want to make more money even (especially?) if it makes life worse for a lot of people.

      You want to sell stuff? Fine. Have pages listing your products (specs and manuals would be nice if applicable) and prices AND the type of currency the prices are in (e.g. USD, EUR, GBP, AUD etc). Please have a contacts page that actually has contact details, not some stupid webform (which just makes me think you're either incompetent and/or a spammer). Please also state other important information like whether you are US only, or Texas only, what sort of payment is accepted. And please make sure that the same url doesn't keep showing completely different information - it's really annoying to see search results that appear promising, then click and get a totally different page. For example: yoursite.com/products/1423/ shouldn't show a different product the next month. Different prices maybe. If it's discontinued, mark it so, or remove it totally - don't reuse the url.

      If I want to buy stuff that you sell, I want to be able to search and find you. If I'm trying to look for stuff that you don't sell, I don't want to find you.

      If everyone gets to spam the results, that just makes it harder to find stuff.

      After all if lots of people list stuff they don't provide just for the sake of appearing higher on the search results, that's rather annoying isn't it? Maybe even fraudulent in some cases. Shouldn't they get smacked way down for doing that?

      But yeah maybe your idea isn't such a bad one. People get to pay $500, and then Google tells them "We think your site really sucks and that's why we've now moved it way below" ;).
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Azog (20907)
      Ummm, a lot of the information or "general feedback: you think you would be willing to pay $500 for is available for free from Google.

      Look up Webmaster Tools. http://www.google.com/webmasters/ [google.com]
      Look up Sitemaps, and look up Analytics. http://www.google.com/analytics [google.com]

      Disclaimer: I work for Google but I am not speaking for them officially here... just trying to spread some useful information!
    • So...exactly how large and successful does a company have to become before the government decides that it should have the right to define its policies? Google is not owned by the U.S. government, nor is it at all feasible to regulate the Internet (unless you are in China [wikipedia.org], it seems). So why is this even a legal issue? The best fix for this is competition in the search engine industry and having people who think Google has somehow wronged them to tell other people why.
    • by Fastolfe (1470)

      I think it's too easy for people to get dumped at the bottom of the rankings without a clue why.

      I think that, generally speaking, if you're dumped at the bottom of the rankings one day, you probably already have a pretty good idea why. You're either doing spammy things with your site to try to elevate your rankings, or you've hired an "SEO" firm that's doing spammy things. If your hope is that Google tells you specifically which rules you're breaking, and what the thresholds are for each of those rule

  • Bad summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sockatume (732728) on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:24AM (#22234482)
    "Google thinks it's a newspaper"? No, the article's discussing how the courts giving Google similar protections to newspapers would influence first amendment law in general, and its use on the internet in particular. It also discusses how if the courts oblige Google to divulge personal information in the same way as credit agencies, that will also affect them. It's a very interesting article, and it does suggest that Google has a world of legal tangles ahead of them, but surely somebody could've come up with a better summary than this?
    • Re:Bad summary (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MightyYar (622222) on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:50AM (#22234734)
      I think the article is making some of the same mistakes that it accuses the judge of making.

      When Google goes to court defending itself when it comes to algorithms, it claims neutrality.

      When Google goes to court defending itself when it comes to ads, it claims the right to editorialize.

      The article makes this seem like a contradiction, but it's really not. Just because there are broad analogies to newspapers, media providers, common carriers, etc that apply to Google doesn't mean that the analogies need to be extended all the way across Google's product portfolio. The fact is that Google has both editorial content, and content that is not editorialized. All they are asking is for the editorial content to be treated as other (more traditional) editorial content is treated, and for the non-editorial content to be treated as other non-editorial content is treated.

      It just so happens that the New York Times also has this - the overwhelming majority of their paper is editorial content, but they also publish lists derived from algorithms, such as the "New York Times Bestseller List". Someone could sue the New York Times because they don't like the way the list is compiled, thus snubbing their book and depriving it of a lot of attention - would they win? I don't think so.
    • "Google thinks it's a newspaper"? No, the article's discussing how the courts giving Google similar protections to newspapers ...

      On the other hand, Yahoo's recent financial difficulties seem to stem from not understanding that they ARE primarily a virtual newspaper and taking that into account in their business model.
    • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
      Yes in so far as speech and content, as long as its not libellous.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 30, 2008 @11:35AM (#22234592)
    Here are the two key parts of the article about Google being treated like a newspaper:

    If courts began to treat Google and its kin as Internet-age newspapers, he says, then regulating their content--from ads to search results--would be difficult.

    One case last year in North Carolina, Langdon v. Google, leaned more toward the newspaper model, giving Google, Yahoo, and MSN free-speech protection to reject any ads they deemed objectionable.

    So, the newspaper analogy has nothing to do with doing with "whatever it pleases", but rather stating that if this analogy is used by the courts, then regulation of its content is difficult, and Google has the rights to reject any ads it pleases.

    The former seems quite true, and the later seems very reasonable to me.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Precedents and analogies are great for making the law consistent, but they will only go so far. Once in a long while, it's necessary to create new models, which may then become the source for analogies in the future. Google is probably one of these. Google isn't precisely like a newspaper, nor is it precisely like a broadcaster, or a phone-book, or a credit-reporting agency, or a common-carrier. It's a new kind of thing, called a "search-engine."

      Analogies may provide some context for deciding how to tre
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      i think the submitter assumed you'd be thinking along the lines that they were, since they mentioned Google books.

      if they would just change the imaginary property laws to be only five years, google wouldnt have any problems with google books and it might get people to read more. i know a lot of people who have never read an entire book and it would be nice if the things had as much of a chance to be seen as the kid getting knocked down by a basketball on youtube.

      i dont see the point in creating so much art
  • Printing Press (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BigJClark (1226554)

    Google is the printing press and library of the digital age. I need information, I can get it. Of course, politicians alike don't mind subjected the masses to near communist levels of taxation, but the second 'we the people' want to cash in on other fringe benefits of such an ideology, they get all up in arms about it. As much as I dislike the thought of a corporation running rampant outside of the boundaries of the law, I can't see who it is hurting.

    And don't reply the 'author', because I see the qu
    • by Marvin01 (909379)

      Google is the printing press and library of the digital age.
      I don't see it. If anything, Google is the card catalog.

      The rest was a little hard to follow, but ...preach it brother! (I guess)
      • Well, I'm not going to search the web for you ;) haha, but if google hadn't stopped indexing books, it would be there. But it does point you to several libraries, based on a couple of factors (postal code, country) etc etc :)
  • What about the article in the constitution that says government may only legislate on those matters that are allowed in the constitution? Or do search engines fall under the "interstate commerce" joker?
    • What about the article in the constitution that says government may only legislate on those matters that are allowed in the constitution?

      There is no such article pertaining to government, per se, which is why state governments have general police powers limited (by the federal constitution) only by express limitations in the Constitution.

      Or do search engines fall under the "interstate commerce" joker?

      Since they are clearly commercial operations involved in transactions that do cross state lines, they do eve

  • If web sites don't want to appear in Google search results just put up 'User-agent: * Disallow: /' in your robots.txt file.
  • This annoys me: The legal balance that needs to be struck, he says, is that "a bad Google ranking can be the kiss of death for an online business. . . ."

    First of all, any online business worth its salt shouldn't be relying on page rankings by Google, but should be buying ads from Google. Second, and much more importantly, Google doesn't owe these online businesses anything. Just because you hang a digital shingle out doesnt entitle you to success. If you enter a crowded niche or design a crappy site o

    • by stubear (130454)
      What if Google is cooking the results algorithm to ensure a steady stream of income? "Your web page seems to be doing too good, let's bump you down a bit and sell you some extra ad space." Pretty convenient for Google don't you think?
  • Since when do you need to be a newspaper to have first amendment rights???

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