NNSquad - Network Neutrality Squad

NNSquad Home Page

NNSquad Mailing List Information


[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[ NNSquad ] The Knights Templar Meet the Google Search Results Conspiracy Theories!

    The Knights Templar Meet the Google Search Results Conspiracy Theories!


     "When correctly viewed, everything is lewd.  I could tell you
      things about Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz, there's a dirty
      old man!" -- Tom Lehrer, "Smut"

Greetings.  I love conspiracy theories.  I really do.  I hardly ever
believe them, but they're often great fun nonetheless, just through
the sheer joyful lack of logic that usually pervades them to their
inner cores.

My own theory has long been that most *genuine* conspiracies are
the ones we don't even suspect exist.  Once a would-be conspiracy has
been labeled a conspiracy theory in public, it's usually already
pretty much toast.

Yet people by and large love believing in conspiracy theories, for a
variety of reasons -- for example, they can be very convenient for
social control and personal gain.

In 1307, King Philip IV of France -- who was deeply in debt to the
Knights Templar -- used the secrecy of their practices and rituals
against them by declaring a vast Templar conspiracy -- triggering
their mass arrest, torture, executions, and (conveniently) the erasure
of Philips's associated debt.  Even today, bizarre, ridiculous
conspiracy theories regarding Freemasonry continue to circulate, egged
on by the secrecy of Masonic rituals.

Conspiracy theories tend to fill information vacuums by attempting to
postulate the inner workings of activities based on fragmentary and
often statistically misleading observational data.  This tendency is
also exacerbated by the natural human desire to impose order on chaos,
to assume connections where none actually exist, to try give ordered
meaning to what otherwise might seem unpalatable asymmetric forces.

Even decades later, many persons refuse to accept the concept that one
lone gunman assassinated President Kennedy, despite overwhelming
evidence to that effect.  It just seems so *wrong* that a single
nobody with a rifle could change history so dramatically.  Surely the
existence of a vast conspiracy would make such events more emotionally
tolerable, at least.

And so we come at last to the technology conspiracy theories of the
moment, the increasing drumbeat of claims that Google is biasing their
organic (natural, not paid-ad) search results in their favor.

The two sides of this current brouhaha may be best exemplified for now
by long-time Google critic Benjamin Edelman's newly released
"Measuring Bias in 'Organic' Web Search" ( http://bit.ly/emk8Ya [Ben
Edelman] ), and search marketing specialist Danny Sullivan's response
in "Study: Google 'Favors' Itself Only 19% Of The Time" 
( http://bit.ly/he82eE [Search Engine Land] ).

I must admit to being somewhat amused both by Benjamin's problematic
statistics and by Danny's detailed analysis of those numbers.  In
particular, the former's methodology is so highly questionable on its
face that Danny's effort in this case strikes me as being somewhat
akin to publishing a deep, intellectual analysis of a brief Monty
Python skit -- the source materials are much more appropriately viewed
strictly for their comedic value (I know a dead parrot when I see

In a more serious vein, we note that statistics, though seemingly
composed of hard facts and numbers, are in reality almost infinitely
mutable, as are the studies that quote them.  Darrell Huff's wonderful
1954 expose and guide, "How to Lie With Statistics" (very much
still in print!) is as marvelously relevant now as it was more than a
half century ago.

Of course there's nothing funny about the ramifications of bias
accusations against Google.  And as in the case with King Philip and
the Templars, it's easy to find financial motivations in play among
some of Google's accusers -- who often tend to be allied with Google's
competitors either directly or via "astroturf" relationships.

To be sure, the detailed mechanisms of search ranking algorithms
(which in Google's case undergo virtually continuous tweaking for
anti-spam and relevancy adjustments) are quite opaque to outside

But it's hard to see how this could reasonably be otherwise, without
opening up search results rankings to endless "gaming" of results by
spammers and other bad actors, to the vast detriment of Internet users

And after all, search results, whether by Google, Bing, or anyone
else, are merely the *opinions* of those search services at any
given moment in time -- not some sort of commandments handed down on
stone tablets.

But ultimately what decimates the Google Search Results conspiracy
theories for me is that they just don't make logical sense.

Just as Tom Lehrer noted in his classic ditty, given a suitable
observational bias, even Peter Pan can be viewed as obscene.  But is
such a bias reasonable?  Of course not.

Similarly, in order to assume purposeful organic search results bias
by Google, we need to also assume either (a) that there's a logical
upside to doing this for Google, that significantly exceeds the
downside risks of being caught doing so, or (b) that Google management
would behave in an unethical, potentially self-destructive manner for
no logical purpose.

To accept either of these assumptions seems nonsensical.  I don't
believe Google operates unethically or illogically.

But beyond this, Google simply doesn't *need* to bias natural
search results.  They are incredibly successful by any measure, and
any possible incremental advantage to manipulating organic results
would be enormously swamped by the public relations and other risks
that could result from their doing so.

What's more, while it's likely true that most people tend to click
initially on highly ranked results, it's also clearly the case that
most Internet users are not wearing blinders that restrict them only
to the first few results.

If users are not satisfied with what they find initially, they'll
usually be back looking at more links and trying out other services in
short order.  Most Internet users are simply not the search result
automatons that some studies would seem to presuppose.

The attacks on Google's natural search results rankings have all the
hallmarks of classic, opportunistic conspiracy theories.  Not only do
they not make sense "by the numbers" -- but they also are illogical
when viewed more broadly in terms of Google cost/risk/benefit

As far as I'm concerned, Peter Pan's small friend "Tinker Bell"
is more likely to exist, than for the search results manipulation bias
accusations against Google to be accurate.

And that's the case even if you don't believe in fairies.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com)
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR (People For Internet Responsibility): http://www.pfir.org
Founder, NNSquad (Network Neutrality Squad): http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, GCTIP (Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance): 
Founder, PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein
Google Buzz: http://bit.ly/lauren-buzz