Should Google be trying to control our decision-making?
Search Engines, and in particular, Google, have a massive impact in our lives. We utilise these services on a pretty much daily basis, so to some extent we must all be influenced by Google – it’s our portal to the information we look for and need to conduct our day-to-day lives.
It’s no secret that Google collects a huge amount of data about the users of its products, nor that it has many other R&D projects (see recent patents for robot personalities) that are a work in progress. Fundamentally, the power – and the potential power – of Google is clearly huge. It’s a common thought experiment to consider whether they have the power and ability to influence our choices, and to manipulate users into making the decisions it wants; and there’s some interesting examples of where this may well be the case. However, rather than focusing on if or why Google may be shaping our experiences, I’d like to look at whether they should be utilising this power to influence us one way or the other, not from a perspective of how that may benefit Google, but a legal, moral, ethical and commercial perspective.
To start with the simplest choice; if the people behind the Google algorithm prefer to buy their shoes from ASOS because their friend works there, should they update the algorithm so that it favours this site in the high ranking positions? Probably not.
However, if they prefer ASOS because of a repeated trend in user’s getting the best user experience and engaging well with the site which meets all of the correct requirements of a quality website? Yes, of course, it should rank higher because that is a better experience for a user to find the useful site first.
Those of us who practice SEO know the benefit of ranking in a high position in organic search in terms of generating higher click-through rates for our domains, and thereby a greater chance of then converting the traffic. As a result, the order of the results displayed must be influential on what consumers are buying:
This means that those selecting the order of the results must have an influence over the eventual buying decision of each and every consumer. So if the order of results impacts buying choices, what else can it influence?
Personal and Political Research
Now think bigger than purely influencing people’s shopping behaviours, and look at the other times we consult Google.
Searching for a video of Britney’s 2007 breakdown? Probably not a big impact which site you view the video on…
In need of a Beyonce gif to express yourself on #BeyonceFriday? It’s likely to be the same regardless of where you find it…
Researching political policies before voting in the election? Ah.. that might be a big one.
Recently, Linkdex produced a huge analysis piece that looks at the different correlations between search volumes of political terms and then the voting behaviours. For example, is the reason Bernie Sanders did so well in Michigan due to all those people googling him? And if so, was this due to the results they saw that made them choose to vote that way when they were making their final decision? Or were they googling him when they already knew their voting preference?
This becomes a chicken-or-the-egg debate really. The intent of a user on a typical consumer query is fairly easy to establish, you either know you want to buy a product or you’re looking to choose between multiple products via an informational query. When searches get more complex here we don’t know quite what it is the user wants, but we do know that those undecided may be swayed by the results they see.
The Legal Case
As Barry Adams pointed out in his post all about the US election, Google is a publicly traded company so legally this means that the decision-makers at Google need to work to maximise profits. When a company goes public, they become obligated to answer directly to their shareholders which means meeting the requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission. For those of you which aren’t familiar with US business law, SEC is 5 senior commissioners who are agreed by the President and Senate and are in place to ensure that businesses are transparent in their practices. Whilst US markets are less regulated than ours, this is in place to ensure that large corporations aren’t taking advantage of individuals investing in them.
On this basis, the requirement is to make as much money possible here. This means the very essence of Google’s legal status is that is it needs to be self-interested, it’s a business, not a public good.
The TL;DR of this whole post really is that IF Google (and other large companies) are really capable of this big an influence, part of the reason that they may then be doing this is because we are letting them. Our current business laws effectively endorse this behaviour, yet here we were discussing if it’s morally right for Google to do this. Fundamentally if it wasn’t Google influencing us, it could be another corporation. Instead,we need to look at how we regulate these systems and if we’re choosing to empower these businesses too much.
A Quick Backtrack
This whole piece is very much based on the fact that Google can, in fact, influence our behaviours, however, we all know that humans have quirks and it isn’t as simple as ‘result number 1’ will get the most clicks.
For example; when we scan results there is a great deal of difference from person to person in how we do this. This is covered really well by Gerald Murphy in a presentation from BrightonSEO last year now so definitely worth checking out.
So if a user is female (which means we know will typically exhibit certain browsing behaviour on the SERP) but also happens to be in a rush and aged 25, what does this mean about the result they’re going to click? It means that we can logically work out that they might go for result number 2, but we aren’t really sure. With so many complex factors feeding into our actions on the SERPs, the ability of Google to directly influence our behaviour in a meaningful way may be much smaller than we originally thought.
If Google can fully understand our search behaviours and has deduced where each individual user is most likely to click in the SERP, and thereby uses the algorithm to display the results it would prefer users to view then yes, this would be an extreme influence on the typical user’s behaviour. However, if the previous behaviour in the SERP isn’t held in this way, then the power to influence by Google here is massively reduced. It really depends on how much data you think Google is collecting…