Does Google Need An Ethics Policy Like The New York Times?

Google has a paid link dilemma, at least according to Patrick Altoft (tip of the hat to Lee Messenger). As he says:

The reason Google doesn?t like paid links is obvious and understandable from their point of view. Google quite simply doesn?t want websites to be able to buy their way to the top of the search engine rankings.

As I commented there:

Google is really a publisher. It publishes its search results. It adds paid advertisements and the more you pay the more visible your Adwords will be. It is trying to maintain that the non-Adwords content is commercial free. However it realizes that big advertisers may well spend money to get higher in the organic results ( the publication side of the business). It needs to be visible in trying to preserve the integrity of that noncommercial content.

Clearly Identifying Advertising

This is not a new issue. Back at Christmas 2003, I offered Google a suggestion on how its Search Engine Report Pages (SERPs) might appear.

Google SERP Mockup

Google SERP mockup

This is almost like a newspaper page. In a good newspaper, there is a strict division between the advertising side and the editorial side. Similarly, in Google there is a strict division, a Chinese wall some say, between Search and Advertising. In the image, the Search section is white and labelled Information Zone. Here Google will serve relevant informational pages that relate to the meaning of your search. The blue section is labelled Commercial Zone and here Google delivers Advertising that is in context with the meaning of your search.

Such a clear distinction is what the Federal Trade Commission has ruled must occur on Search Engine Report Pages (SERP’s). Indeed if Google chose to show each content on different colored backgrounds as in the image, perhaps everyone would win. Those who wish to read the advertisements can easily identify them.

Ethical Publishing

Google will be 10 years old this coming September. The New York Times will be 157 years old in the same month. So it is had longer to grapple with these issues. Perhaps its Handbook of Values and Practices on Ethical Journalism (pdf file) might provide a model for Google. In particular, one can read the following:

72. The Times treats advertisers as fairly and openly as it treats readers and news sources. The relationship between The Times and advertisers rests on the understanding, long observed in all departments, that news and advertising are strictly separate – that those who deal with either one have distinct obligations and interests and neither group will try to influence the other.

Google might also take to heart what the New York Times says about integrity.

At a time of growing and even justified public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of some journalists and some journalism, it is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers? faith and confidence in our news columns. This means that staff members should be vigilant in avoiding any activity that might pose an actual or apparent conflict of interest and thus threaten the newspaper’s ethical standing. And it also means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.

The Search Engine Report Pages (SERP’s) that Google produce around the world clearly have a much bigger impact than the New York Times. Given Google’s size, the need for integrity is paramount.

Is Google A Publisher?

Although a Doctor in Philosophy might not agree, the person in the street would have little difficulty with this question. Just take a look at Google News for example. Its tagline states: Search and browse 4,500 news sources updated continuously. It is so similar to a newspaper that Google even has to add a disclaimer at the foot of the page. The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.

Clearly there is a major difference between a New York Times publication and a Search Engine Report Page (SERP) produced by Google. What Google publishes is entirely created by computer. Every entry is there because Google’s search algorithm deemed it more relevant than items lower down in the list. The actual text for each item is then developed by an automatic snippet production process. No human author is involved.

The problem arises because Google’s search algorithm places some weight on the number of links pointing to any given web page entry. That is the core principle of the PageRank concept, which is what distinguishes Google from other search engines. Paid links may be one way in which website owners try to influence what appears in the Google SERPs. However this is only a tiny tip of the iceberg, as compared with the way major companies can influence where their websites appear in lists. Major companies can easily create a network of associated sub companies, affiliates and partners. These might quite naturally link to the mother company website. These links are technically not paid links but certainly generate benefits for their creators. It would however be a task worthy of King Solomon to decide which should be deemed paid links and which not.

Google has decided to take a different path, which could be viewed as undemocratic. It seems to be working with a very narrow definition of a paid link. This is a link that has been created because cash was received directly for its creation. Large companies can create links in much more creative ways and avoid the paid label being applied to their links. The present Google approach is likely to hit smaller companies and of course the more who are affected the louder the volume of complaints. If they wished to create the maximum noise about their approach, this is the way to do it. If effective, it could reduce the volume of such directly paid links. It avoids entirely the difficult question of links that are created by big company networks.

The Advertising/Editorial Content Dilemma

It’s not an easy problem for Google to resolve. As Louis Hau points out, even Newspapers Confront The Enemy Within:

Newsrooms have long cultivated a strict “church-state” division between themselves and their papers’ advertising departments, fearing a loss of independence and integrity–and with it the trust of readers. Like it or not, the newspaper industry’s increasingly grim financial outlook leaves editors with little choice but to work across the aisle.

Whereas newspapers may be discussing life-and-death issues here, that’s hardly the case for Google. Whether the Google Adwords program is influencing its approach to paid links is not something they declare. Paid links are certainly a competitor for a share of any online marketing budget. Some feel that Google can set its own rules in its own publications. However when a company becomes so dominant in any market place, perhaps the normal free competition rules need some restraint.

If you feel strongly on this, you may choose to add your comments here or perhaps join the ongoing discussion on this at Cre8asite Forums.

15 thoughts on “Does Google Need An Ethics Policy Like The New York Times?”

  1. Hi Barry,

    A very interesting topic. I’m not so sure if the conventional media is as strict about separating its news and advertising departments as they may have been. The clear example is Fox News and their obvious endorsements for particular types of issues, especially when it comes to politics and religion. However, a more subtle and pervasive feature of the newspaper and magazine industry is the “Advertorial,” a combination of an advertisement and editorial. I have always hated seeing this in any news publication, but also appreciated its cleverness.

  2. I guess that’s the key, Kulpreet – audience acceptance. Google seems to be less customer-centric than other companies so they may be approaching this from a view of the purity of their product. It also happens to be an approach that gives more potential for their Adwords program.

  3. I thought Google already had an Ethics Policy. The Policy is supposedly ” Do no Evil!” Of course, turning over user information to the Chinese Government about dissidents so they can be imprisoned and tortured does not qualify as “evil.”

  4. In my estimation, it is Google’s backlink policy that contributes greatly to the flood of spam going into web 2.0 sites. Therefore, paid links is NOT the only issue, nor is it even the major effect of their policy. The problem is actually google generated and many 2.0 sites are suffering because of it. Is there any reason Google can’t revisit the entire subject of links and work out a solution that doesn’t penalize the mom and pops, the small businesses, the new enterprises on the web that have so much to contribute?

  5. The problem is how do you determine the best site for a given set of keywords? You have millions of sites trying to be the best for the same set of words.

    Google determined, among other factors, that link popularity was a good method. I suppose had that fact remained secret we wouldn’t have the problems we have. But, outside of employing billions of people to manually rank sites, how else could you? And of course the people would be open to bribes, etc. Wait, sounds like paid links doesn’t it?!?

    At least links aren’t the only component for ranking. As a result, Moms and Pops do have a fighting chance.

  6. Oh, if they’d kept the link popularity factor secret that would have been fine. It was because they made a lot of noise about their PageRank methodology and because Google became enormously popular that we have the problems. Yahoo! doesn’t put the same weight on links and does an OK job.

  7. I disagree that mom and pops have a fighting chance in this environment. At least my own didn’t. Between click fraud by competitors, the time requirements of obtaining backlinks- 20-30K, black hat seo tactics by others interested in taking what traffic you are getting, and occasional slaps by Google, or just normal algo churning, this environment is simply too hostile for the small folks, dependent on their business for a living, to fight this out. If they do hit on something that is working for them, someone out there who is more knowledgeable and trickier comes along and usurps what works. Social darwinism at its finest.

  8. Our experience has been different. We are a Mom and Pop. We’ve done pretty well. My responsibilities are split between sales and the website. It goes in spurts, but on average the website gets 10 – 20% of my time. We’ve done pretty well. It has taken longer than we would have liked, but we got there.

    We didn’t have to use any black-hat techniques. We didn’t need 20K – 30K in backlinks either. We just keep putting in cracks of time.

  9. Interesting read. We’ve been doing optimization work for years, and yes links are important to Google, but they do take many other things into consideration when page ranking. Article writing has been one positive avenue for us in Seo optimization. Thanks for your article.

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