Scrutinizing The Search Engines

How do search engines work, exactly?  When you type in your poorly worded, off the top of your head inquiry, how do they sift through mountains of data and come up with responsive information — and then rank that information, to boot?

Staffers at the Federal Trade Commission looked at Google and concluded that Google skews its search results to favor its own services and offerings at the expense of its rivals.  Among other things, the report concluded that Google modified its ranking criteria so that Google options fared better and that Google “scraped” content — whatever that means — from other websites as part of its effort to favor Google offerings.

IMG_4976I suppose I should be irate about the notion of Google jimmying search results in its favor, but it’s hard to get too exercised about it.  I really don’t care about how the rankings are determined or presented, nor do I want to get into the boring details of search algorithms.  How many people automatically click on the top option their search produces?  I don’t.  I’m perfectly happy to skip the sites that have paid for priority and the cached options and scroll through until I find what I’m looking for.

The search engine world is a black box to most of us non-techies, but there seems to be a lot of games being played, by everyone.  How often have you done a software update on your computer and found that your default search engine option has mysteriously changed from Google to, say, Yahoo as part of the process?  That’s happened to me, and I assume that Yahoo has paid for that modification, figuring that most people won’t go through the hassle of changing the default back to Google or Yelp or whatever it was before.  And most people won’t.

The reality is, most of us don’t care which search engine gets used, or how the search engine produces its results, or whether those results are faithfully based on objective criteria.  We just want to get instantaneous answers to our questions.  I’m more interested in how Google comes up with those funky substitutes for the letters in its name that recognize special occasions, like today’s colorful flower-based nod to the official beginning of spring.

Debating The Right To Be Forgotten

Should people have the right to require internet search engines, like Google, to remove links to personal information about them?  Should there be, in the words of privacy advocates, a “right to be forgotten”?  Or, should newspaper articles about individuals be available permanently, as part of the mass of information to be found on the internet?

The European Court of Justice addressed that issue yesterday and ruled that people can ask Google to remove such information. If Google doesn’t do so, individuals can go to the authorities to require removal of the link in question if the linked information is found to be “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  It’s not entirely clear what those standards mean, and their contours will no doubt be framed by future decisions.

The facts of the case that gave rise to the European ruling help to illustrate the issue.  A man was dismayed to find that a search of his name on Google produced a link to a 1998 newspaper article about his financial problems.  He contended that the information was outdated and irrelevant because he had paid off his debts, and thus that the link should be removed.  The Court agreed that he could pursue that request and that search engines have a duty to ensure that data that is “inadequate” or “irrelevant” does not appear.

It’s a European ruling, of course, so it doesn’t having binding force in America — but if Google is forced to change its practices in response to personal requests from individual Europeans, it presumably would change its practices for individual Americans, too.  Fielding and responding to requests for removal of links to outdated information could have a significant impact on the operation of search engines and, by extension, on the kinds of information available to everyone through the internet.

It’s not hard to see both sides of the issue.  If you are a 60-year-old who’s had a successful career, should a newspaper article about an embarrassing youthful indiscretion appear on the first page of Google search results about you?  If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a person for a job that involves handling money for your business, would you want to know about his prior financiaI problems, even if those problems occurred 20 years ago?  And should different expungement rules apply to people who want to be elected to public office? Could a savvy candidate cleanse his record before starting his first campaign?  And are there any instances in which a person’s decision to approach Google and ask for removal of a link could itself become a matter of public record?

The “right to be forgotten” and “the right to know” are in tension, and we’re going to see that tension worked out in the years ahead.