Bias in Google-AOL Deal; “Unethical,” says Microsoft

I’m late (due to end-of-semester grading) to the discussion of the recent Google-AOL deal. The key points:

  • Google spends $1 billion to gain a 5% stake in AOL;
  • Google offers special promotion and links to AOL (as sponsored links) for searches which AOL has its own content;
  • Google provides AOL with $300 million in free advertising on Google’s web sites;
  • Google would begin to test various forms of graphical ads (a bold departure from its text-only approach to ads which keeps their interface clean, fast and user-friendly);
  • Google will incorporate AOL video programming in its video search section and will feature links to AOL videos on the video search home page (these links will not be marked as advertising);
  • Google will provide technical assistance so AOL can create Web pages that will appear more prominently in the search results;

The last point is key, as it reveals how bias might be introduced in search results. Google will teach AOL how to “game” the system in order to optimize the placement of AOL sites within Google’s search results. From Google’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with this, since they are not actually changing their algorithms to prefer AOL sites. Yet, teaching a strategic partner how to make their sites appear higher in the results is clearly a form of systematic and unair bias. There are no gaurantees that AOL’s content is necessarily more relevant for users, but they will have “insider” help in getting their results higher.

It should be noted that when Microsoft was allowed to match these terms, they passed, saying it was unethical. I couldn’t agree more.

UPDATE: Google has posted a response to these criticisms. John Battelle is unconvinced (neither am I).

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