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.