Since Google launched Instant, there have been numerous claims that Instant has a bias towards brands. In October, for instance, Siddharth Shah of Efficient Frontier Insights observed that “of the 26 letters in the alphabet, 21 have brands as the first suggestions.“
Based on this, he suggested that Google Instant is “going to make
brand key words more expensive, increase impression volumes by 30% –
According to Google’s Amit Singhal, who heads up the search behemoth’s search quality team, Google Instant has no brand bias. He told Fast Company:
We didn’t want to introduce any bias into the mathematical modeling–our
modeling is predicting, given a letter, what’s the probability of completion.
Most people typing A are seeing Amazon, but that probability is predicting that
most people typing A are going to complete to Amazon. If you type T, most people
typing T will go to Target. That’s the probability model. If you add R to it
(“Tr”), most people are looking for a translation system. It’s actually just
pure mathematical modeling.
His explanation seems reasonable. Brands are popular, and there’s no reason to doubt that a lot of searches are brand-related. But far more questionable is Singhal’s comment that “What we do at Google and what we’ve done for years is to not inject any
subjectivity into these algorithms.“
It’s a curious statement that doesn’t appear to be 100% accurate. Google’s Vince update, for instance, was widely seen as a boon to big brands. Although Google insists that this update had less to do with brands than trustworthiness, the results seem speak for themselves. When coupled with Google’s other features and experiments that tend to promote brands and Eric Schmidt’s past “cesspool” comments, those who believe Google is favoring brands, even if subtly, have a decent amount of ammunition.
What’s far less subtle: Google’s favoritism of its own properties. On that front, it’s hard to reconsile Singhal’s claim that “what we’ve done for years is to not inject any
subjectivity into these algorithms [emphasis mine]” with Marissa Mayer’s admission that Google promotes its own properties. Certainly, changing particular sets of SERPs to display Google links first, overriding what Google’s algorithm produces naturally, is an inherently subjective act that is based on the assumption that Google’s own properties are superior, even if consumers haven’t yet voted with their mice.
At the end of the day, one thing is clear: Google is increasingly going to have to face scrutiny over how it ranks sites, particularly its own. While there is an argument to be made that “objectivity” and “neutrality” are overrated anyway, it would probably be wise for Google to stop implying that this is what it always delivers.