Google's AOL Deal Undermines Its Principles

While the actual terms have yet to be disclosed, one aspect of the deal is troubling. <i>The Times</I> reports, "Google, which pride

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

December 19, 2005

2 Min Read

According to reports over the weekend in The New York Times and elsewhere, Time Warner is expected to announce tomorrow that it will renew its partnership with Google, which will make a $1 billion investment in AOL in exchange for a 5% stake in the company.

While the actual terms have yet to be disclosed, one aspect of the deal is troubling. The Times reports, "Google, which prides itself on the purity of its search results, agreed to give favored placement to content from AOL throughout its site, something it has never done before."

Google has gone to great pains to assure users and advertisers that it provides fair and balanced search results. "We believe you should know when someone has paid to put a message in front of you, so we always distinguish ads from the search results or other content on a page," the company says in its corporate overview. "We don't sell placement in the search results themselves, or allow people to pay for a higher ranking there."

Now, it seems that claim is open to question.As part of the deal, Google reportedly will feature links to AOL videos on its video search page without letting the user know that those links are effectively paid messages.

AOL will also reportedly get special links leading to its content on the lower righthand portion of Google search results pages, along with its logo. Technically, AOL will pay for these links, though it will do so with credits given by Google as part of the deal.

As Google watcher and author John Battelle told The Times, "What they are giving away is the perception in the marketplace that Google isn't for sale."

This is not to say that Google will compromise the integrity of its search results for AOL. But it does seem as if it will compromise the integrity of the Web page on which those search results appear.

This begs the question: For search engines, is bias bad?

Surprisingly, law professor Eric Goldman argues that it is not. "In practice, search engines are just like every other medium-heavily reliant on editorial control and susceptible to human biases," he writes. "[S]earch engines naturally will continue to evolve their ranking algorithms and improve search result relevancy-a process that will cause the most problematic aspects of search engine bias to largely disappear."

Somehow that's not very comforting.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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