Search neutrality is related to network neutrality in that they both aim to keep any one organization from limiting or altering a user's access to services on the Internet. Search neutrality aims to keep the organic search results (results returned because of their relevance to the search terms, as opposed to results sponsored by advertising) of a search engine free from any manipulation, while network neutrality aims to keep those who provide and govern access to the Internet from limiting the availability of resources to access any given content.
The term "search neutrality" in context of the internet appears as early as March 2009 in an academic paper by Andrew Odlyzko titled, "Network Neutrality, Search Neutrality, and the Never-ending Conflict between Efficiency and Fairness in Markets". In this paper, Odlykzo predicts that if net neutrality were to be accepted as a legal or regulatory principle, then the questions surrounding search neutrality would be the next controversies. Indeed, in December 2009 the New York Times published an opinion letter by Foundem co-founder and lead complainant in an anti-trust complaint against Google, Adam Raff, which likely brought the term to the broader public. According to Raff in his opinion letter, search neutrality ought to be "the principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance". On October 11, 2009, Adam and his wife Shivaun launched SearchNeutrality.org, an initiative dedicated to promoting investigations against Google's search engine practices . There, the Raffs note that they chose to frame their issue with Google as "search neutrality" in order to benefit from the focus and interest on net neutrality.
In contrast to net neutrality, answers to such questions, as "what is search neutrality?" or "what are appropriate legislative or regulatory principles to protect search neutrality?", appear to have less consensus. The idea that neutrality means equal treatment, regardless of the content, comes from debates on net neutrality . Neutrality in search is complicated by the fact that search engines, by design and in implementation, are not intended to be neutral or impartial. Rather, search engines and other information retrieval applications are designed to collect and store information (indexing), receive a query from a user, search for and filter relevant information based on that query (searching/filtering), and then present the user with only a subset of those results, which are ranked from most relevant to least relevant (ranking). "Relevance" is a form of bias used to favor some results and rank those favored results. Relevance is defined in the search engine so that a user is satisfied with the results and is therefore subject to the user's preferences. And because relevance is so subjective, putting search neutrality into practice has been so contentious.
Search neutrality became a concern after search engines, most notably Google, were accused of search bias by other companies. Competitors and companies claim search engines systematically favor some sites (and some kind of sites) over others in their lists of results, disrupting the objective results users believe they are getting.
The call for search neutrality goes beyond traditional search engines. Sites like Amazon.com and Facebook are also accused of skewing results. Amazon's search results are influenced by companies that pay to rank higher in their search results while Facebook filters their newsfeed lists to conduct social experiments.
Most of Foundem's accusations claim that Google deliberately applies penalties to other vertical search engines because they represent competition. Foundem is backed by a Microsoft proxy group, the 'Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplace'.
The following table details Foundem's chronology of events as found on their website:
|June 2006||Foundem's Google search penalty begins. Foundem starts an arduous campaign to have the penalty lifted.|
|August 2006||Foundem's AdWord penalty begins. Foundem starts an arduous campaign to have the penalty lifted.|
|August 2007||Teleconference with Google AdWords Quality Team representative.|
|September 2007||Foundem is "whitelisted" for AdWords (i.e. Google manually grants Foundem immunity from its AdWords penalty).|
|January 2009||Foundem starts "public" campaign to raise awareness of this new breed of penalty and manual whitelisting.|
|April 2009||First meeting with ICOMP.|
|October 2009||Teleconference with Google Search Quality Team representative, beginning a detailed dialogue between Foundem and Google.|
|December 2009||Foundem is "whitelisted" for Google natural search (i.e. Google manually grants Foundem immunity from its search penalty).|
Google's large market share (85%) has made them a target for search neutrality litigation via antitrust laws. In February 2010, Google released an article on the Google Public Policy blog expressing their concern for fair competition, when other companies at the UK joined Foundem's cause (eJustice.fr, and Microsoft's Ciao! from Bing) also claiming being unfairly penalized by Google.
After two years of looking into claims that Google "manipulated its search algorithms to harm vertical websites and unfairly promote its own competing vertical properties," the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted unanimously to end the antitrust portion of its investigation without filing a formal complaint against Google. The FTC concluded that Google's "practice of favoring its own content in the presentation of search results" did not violate U.S. antitrust laws. The FTC further determined that even though competitors might be negatively impacted by Google's changing algorithms, Google did not change its algorithms to hurt competitors, but as a product improvement to benefit consumers.
There are a number of arguments for and against search neutrality.
Google's "Universal Search" system has been identified as one of the least neutral search engine practices,[according to whom?] and following the implementation of Universal Search websites, such as MapQuest, the company experienced a massive decline in web traffic. This decline has been attributed to Google linking to its own services rather than the services offered at external websites. Despite these claims, Google actually displays Google content on the first page, while rival search engines do not considerably less often than Microsoft's Bing which displays Microsoft content when rivals do not. Bing displays Microsoft content in first place more than twice as often as Google shows Google content in first place. This indicates that as far as there is any 'bias', Google is less biased than its principal competitor.
Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google "BP," one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill....
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