A heavily critical study, entitled Report on the Dangers and Opportunities Posed by Large Search Engines, particularly Google, produced by Austria’s Graz University, has garnered significant media attention in recent weeks. The 187-page study alleges that the search engine “distorts reality” and that “Google has amassed power in an unprecedented way that is endangering our society.”

For a study which attracted worldwide attention, its arguments and conclusions are decidedly undergraduate. Most of the report’s criticisms can be easily defended, with the authors seemingly determined to criticise Google, regardless of the logic of those claims.

Among the major allegations, the study claimed that Google has led to a surge in plagiarism, specifically the “Google Copy Paste Syndrome”.

However, this criticism (which spurred the report) is not really a criticism of Google, but of the internet and search engines in general. If Google didn’t exist, plagiarists could presumably turn to Yahoo or MSN. To blame Google is akin to holding one tobacco company responsible for all smoking-related deaths. Further, there is the likelihood that Google’s existence has not necessarily led to increased plagiarism, but rather, an increase in its detection.

The report also accuses Google of being “turned into the largest and most powerful detective agency the world has ever known” and that Google will be “forced to use this potential in the future if it promises revenue”. This flawed reasoning ignores the fact that Google makes literally billions of dollars in revenue from advertising, largely based on the relevance of its results and trust of users.

Leaving aside Google’s “Don’t be Evil” mantra, from a commercial standpoint, Google stands to reap far greater returns from advertising than from selling information. (Interestingly, while critical of Google, the study makes no mention of Yahoo, which was alleged to have violated universal human rights last April when it informed Chinese authorities of information regarding pro-democracy advocates, resulting in their imprisonment).

Later, the report accuses Google of influencing how advertisements appear, noting that “the more a company pays, the more often will the advertisement [sic] be visible.” Which is pretty much how every media company on earth, be it television, print, broadcast or outdoor works. Usually, the person who pays the most to the Yellow Pages gets the biggest ad. Although it appears that someone forgot to tell the wise folk at Graz University that.

The study got its criticisms of Google badly wrong; it’s the problem with coming from an academic, rather than a commercial viewpoint. While Google itself is not a perfect company, its foibles come not from its market domination of search, but of its treatment of advertisers. It is often forgotten that Google does not make any money specifically from its search function, rather, virtually all of its profits come from its Adwords advertising system (which came well after Google’s search engine).

If the authors of the study wanted to validly attack Google, they should have studied the Adwords system, which represents the best and worst of Google. While on one hand, Adwords allows advertisers to directly target users and carefully control expenditure (unlike scorched earth “banner ads” which are far less effective), on the other, Adwords is totally unaccountable and highly subject to “click-fraud”. If advertisers have complaints about Google’s Adwords service, the company is notoriously slow to respond and generally, unhelpful.

It is in this field where Google exerts real market dominance and where Google makes its gigantic profits. It is incorrect to criticise Google for revolutionising the search function and gaining market share by simply providing a better service. However, Google’s treatment of its advertisers, who are in fact its real customers, is an issue worthy of further study.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey