Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is Google rigged?

It seems Google can't do anything these days without courting controversy.

Google has defended recent changes to its search system that reduced the prominence of some popular websites. ... Google's head of search evaluation, Scott Huffman, said it was "almost absurd" to suggest that the results were rigged. [BBC News, 15 April 2011 via Lord of the Universe]

The phrase "almost absurd" falls some way short of a full-bloodied denial: Mr Huffman seems to be conceding that the suggestion is not totally absurd.

Meanwhile the word "rigged" seems ethically loaded. According to Merriam-Webster, the word "rigging" means

1. Making (a sailing ship or boat) ready for sailing by providing it with sails and rigging.

2. Assembling and adjusting (the equipment of a sailboat, aircraft, etc.) to make it ready for operation.

Obviously, Google's page ranking algorithms are designed to achieve certain outcomes. Google is a commercial company, not a supremely neutral enterprise (although some people seem to forget this too easily).

Is there a clear dividing line between designing something and rigging something? Perhaps the word "rigging" implies that there is something unfair, impure or ethically problematic about certain kinds of design thinking?

No comments: