Saturday, August 16, 2008

Web Publishers Worry About Growing Competition From Google

The question in people’s minds is how unbiased can Google be as it grows and grows and grows.

- Wenda Harris Millard, the co-chief executive of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia

In Miguel Helft, "Is Google a Media Company?," The New York Times, August 10, 2008

Though it is best known for the capability of its search engine, Google increasingly owns firms that distribute content and need to draw audiences to support themselves through advertising. One examples is the YouTube video website, where Google sells ads around and sometimes in the videos. Another example Knowl, a new online encyclopedia where people write articles about topics they know and can choose to place Google ads next to the articles witth the aim of sharing the revenue with Google. Some media executives say that they can imagine a time when Google "adjusts" the results of searches so that sites it owns automatically show up among the highest rankings. That would send lots of people to its sites and increase its ad revenues.

At this point, there is no evidence that Google does not adjust its searches to privilege its own sites. The company adamently says that will never happen. Yet the Google search formulas are secret, and the company is not bound by any laws that require it to be unbiased in its search results. Even if never does that, Google has power to create content sites that compete well with other sites in search, perhaps because it sees what users want by analyzing their search activities. Harvard business professor David Yoffe points out that with YouTube, Knol, Blogger and other company sites, Google could take 3 of the top 10 results in some searches. That could get Web publishers that advertise on Google search and other Google ad platforms angry, even if there is no evidence that Google distorted the results to favor its sites. Yoffie and others believe that suspicions about Google's honesty and its conflicts of interest with its advertisers will inevitably increase as its investment in content sites grows.

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