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Google's fight to keep search a secret

The debate isn't new, but it's growing: Should Google be forced to open up about its search technology to assure everyone it's operating on the level?

Can Google keep a secret?

Google's Marissa Mayer argues that Google must keep its search secrets out of the hands of spammers.
Google's Marissa Mayer argues that Google must keep its search secrets out of the hands of spammers. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Conspiracy theorists disinclined to read any further, fire away about the NSA and Wi-Fi-gate. The actual topic of this discussion is more basic to Google's core identity: should it be required to disclose how its secret recipe for organizing the Internet is put together as to assure regulators and Internet publishers that it isn't gaming the results?

The New York Times fired the first salvo--at least this week--suggesting in an editorial Wednesday that "the potential impact of Google's algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google's tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google's other businesses." That was quickly followed by an opinion piece in The Financial Times credited to Google's Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, defending Google's need to keep that formula secret because "if search engines were forced to disclose their algorithms and not just the signals they use, or, worse, if they had to use a standardized algorithm, spammers would certainly use that knowledge to game the system, making the results suspect."

It's just the latest headache for Google when it comes to federal regulation both at home and in Europe, which is probably why it chose to place its op-ed piece in the FT. Simply put, there are a growing number of regulators, agitators, and regular people who just don't trust Google when it comes to the integrity of its search results.

For years it was enough for Google to proclaim its independence and the public took it at its word, especially because of the quality of its search results compared with alternatives and the benefits those results brought to most businesses on the Web. But suspicion has grown ever since Google's 2007 move to introduce universal search technology that shone a brighter spotlight on its own vertical search categories, highlighting results for images, maps, products, and news within the main search results page.

There is a clear argument for keeping Google's algorithms behind closed doors, even for a company that loves to work the word "open" into nearly every public statement it makes. It's one that acknowledges the dark side of the Internet: billions are already spent in hopes of gaming Google's search results, and spammers, hucksters, and criminals intent on doing damage will have a far easier time doing so if they have educated knowledge as to where to place their bets.

In addition, if Google's algorithms are revealed, then why shouldn't Yahoo's or Microsoft's also see the air? Or even's? After all, if Google were to become the MySpace of search engines, overrun with spam and generally unpalatable, traffic would flow in to those other companies and the entire process would just repeat itself elsewhere. The end result would not be good for the Internet.

Yet even though Google has done a great deal of good for the world, it's still a for-profit corporation controlled by just three men. Google is the front door to the Internet for hundreds of millions of people, and while it has been instrumental in bringing the benefits of that medium to the world it would be unwise to assume that any corporation will always act in the interest of the public good until this world crumbles.

This is a harder dilemma than it may seem, and it's probably one that can't be solved with an algorithm. Google needs to figure out a way to shore up the public's confidence in its integrity while continuing to stay one step ahead of those who are dying for the chance to exploit its search technology for their own benefit.

Otherwise, someone else will make that decision for them, resulting in either ham-handed regulation with any number of unintended consequences or the decline of Google's effectiveness as the links between the world's questions and the world's answers. Those turned off by Google's arrogance may celebrate that in the short term, but don't expect any rivals that fill Google's shoes to avoid one day traveling down the same road.