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Last Updated: Friday, 21 February, 2003, 11:43 GMT
Is Google too powerful?
Google's headquarters
What will Google do with Blogger?

Is it time to set up Ofsearch, a regulator of search engines asks technology consultant Bill Thompson

Everyone's favourite search engine now owns the world's most popular blogging tool.

With its purchase of Pyra Labs, Google now runs Blogger and with it the weblogs of hundreds of thousands of opinionated net users.

The story of the buyout was, appropriately enough, broken on a weblog by journalist Dan Gillmor, shortly followed by an 'official' announcement on his personal blog from Prya Labs co-founder Evan Williams.

Then the blogs and technology news sites went wild, making this the net news story of the week, if not the month.

Not journalism

Often blogs are as far from journalism as it is possible to get, with unsubstantiated rumour, prejudice and gossip masquerading as informed opinion
Bill Thompson

We should not get carried away by all this.

Ridiculous comments, such as Dan Gillmor's claim that "with the advent of weblogging, the readers know more than the journalists" only stoke the fires of hyperbole and do not help us understand this new tool.

Blogging is not journalism.

Often it is as far from journalism as it is possible to get, with unsubstantiated rumour, prejudice and gossip masquerading as informed opinion.

Without editors to correct syntax, tidy up the story structure or check facts, it is generally impossible to rely on anything one finds in a blog without verifying it somewhere else - often the much-maligned mainstream media.

The much-praised reputation mechanism that is supposed to ensure that bloggers remain true, honest and factually-correct is, in fact, just the rule of the mob, where those who shout loudest and get the most links are taken more seriously.

It is the online equivalent of saying that The Sun newspaper always tells the truth because four million people read it, and The Guardian is intrinsically less trustworthy as it only sells half a million.

Google's plan

This is not to deny the significance of blogging, or the value that comes from having the unmediated opinions and experiences of millions of people available online.

Blogging left the geeks behind long ago, and the wide availability of easy to use tools like Blogger, Movable Type and Grey Matter has allowed anyone with an interest and some time to create their own online journal.

I just do not subscribe to the view that this challenges 'proper' journalism, even if it does mean that sloppy reporting and analysis based on incorrect assertions are more likely to be challenged by the online community.

What then of Blogger and Google?

Now that some of the dust has settled it is clear that nobody knows what is going to happen next.

Not even, it seems, Evan Williams himself since he admitted that just because he had negotiated the sale to Google "that doesn't mean I know much. For example, about the question: What happens now?"

Some think that Google was simply helping out a fellow innovator that had fallen on hard times. Others see it as the start of an attempt by this most successful of search engines to own the 'blogosphere', all the world's blogs.

Another theory has it that Google will use the content from the blogs it now owns to fine tune its news service by using the bloggers as an early warning system on breaking stories.

Internet entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash believes it is Google's first mistake, the start of a strategy to turn the search engine into a portal which is doomed to failure.

And the paranoid fringe think that it is just another takeover from a secretive, hyper-competitive company with no respect for the personal privacy of its users.

I think this last group may actually have a point.

Tracking users

Google probably knew when you last thought you were pregnant, what diseases your children have had, and who your divorce lawyer is
Bill Thompson

Google is a privately-owned US company that has a policy of collecting as much information as possible about everyone who uses its search tool.

It will store your computer's IP address, the time/date, your browser details and the item you search for.

It sets a tracking cookie on your computer that does not expire until 2038.

This means that Google builds up a detailed profile of your search terms over many years.

Google probably knew when you last thought you were pregnant, what diseases your children have had, and who your divorce lawyer is.

It refuses to say why it wants this information or to admit whether it makes it available to the US Government for tracking purposes.

And the much-loved Google toolbar tells Google about every web page you look at.

Yet it so dominates the search engine market that no website can afford to ignore it, and it indexes so much of the web that few users think of using another.

The way it ranks pages is a commercial secret, outside any external supervision or control.

If Google decides it does not like you then you can be dropped from the index.

Time for Ofsearch?

Perhaps the time has come to recognise this dominant search engine for what it is - a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest.

The argument about keeping away from regulating the internet and the web has always been that the technology is not mature enough or important enough to merit government interference.

Surely, with more than half of UK adults using the net we have reached the point where this argument no longer applies.

A government serious about ensuring that the net benefits society as a whole could start by investigating Google and considering whether we should create Ofsearch, the Office of Search Engines.


Does Google need to be regulated? Send us your views:

Surely the buy-up of Blogger is another step towards Google becoming a fully-fledged media company
Chris Dillabough, UK

Another important point to make about Google's purchase of Blogger is that its acquisitive nature could prove to be its undoing - if you assume that it'll need co-operative deals with portals like MSN & AOL in order to keep growing. It already angered the portals, which bring it much of its traffic, when it launched Froogle (its shopping comparison tool) around Christmas. That service seeks to disintermediate portals' shopping sections by appealing directly to e-tailer advertisers. Yahoo! has already hit back by buying its rival Inktomi and it's bound to kick Google results off its site soon.

Surely the buy-up of Blogger is another step towards Google becoming a fully-fledged media company. If Google becomes a media company, rather than a search engine, it'll might find itself under attack from more competitors than it bargained for. And if it takes its eye off the search technology ball, Inktomi and AltaVista (now with backing from Overture) could be resurgent.
Chris Dillabough, UK

I think Google's history of making morally good decisions (not allowing advertisers to alter search results as other search engines do, unobtrusive text advertisements, a healthy atmosphere of innovation, etc.) undermines this alarmist standpoint.
Matus Telgarsky, USA

As a professional Search Engine Marketing specialist it is very interesting to see this article in the 'mainstream' media. In fact the way that linking affects prominence in Google is likely to lead to the sidelining of those with more 'radical' views and the promotion of more 'mainstream' views. The fact that the writer is quick to dismiss blogging as 'not journalism' seems to indicate that he is worried that this 'not journalism' is becoming a bigger and bigger part of ordinary peoples lives and that the current structure of the news media may be eroded by a completely new information gathering process.

Which leads me back to 'Is Google getting too powerful?' to which the answer is probably YES if you are in the Search Engine Marketing field where the dominance of Google in searches can make or break an eCommerce business at the present time, but NO if you are looking at the media field as a whole from the information dissemination viewpoint.

Google is different - but as technology develops the way people live their lives develop and so will the ways in which they obtain their news and information.
Ian Turner, UK

Google has no open political stance (which has been one of the main gripes of people against traditional media outlets which present the political standpoint of their bosses) and presents information based on a 'fixed' set of rules to determine the prominence of particular items.

Google is different - but as technology develops the way people live their lives develop and so will the ways in which they obtain their news and information. As for the future, search engine marketing professionals are already seeing competitors trying to emulate Google (it is now the de facto industry benchmark by which others are judged) and exceed Google in some areas.
Ian Turner, UK

This makes me think more than twice about using Google again. Wait till I find that cookie!
Robin, UK

Seems to me that Google has shown a lot of integrity as a company by keeping off the banner ads and going its own way against the commercialism of all the other search engines. In light of that, I would rather have them keeping tabs on me than my government, which would be the case if government regulation of search engines became a reality. Think how ideal Mr Thompson's proposals would be for Big Brother advocates: remove the middleman and get your mits on the data directly!
Oskar, USA

Thank you for this article! I have changed my search engine immediately. And I agree, Google must be investigated. We should know a little bit more, in fact, about all these search engines!
Zdenka, Bosnia and Herzegovina

"It sets a tracking cookie on your computer that does not expire until 2038. This means that Google builds up a detailed profile of your search terms over many years." Nice scare tactic -- a shame about the reality.

The sheer amount of data provides a great deal of anonymity.
Danny Sullivan, UK

Setting a cookie simply tells Google that a particular machine was involved with a particular request. It still doesn't know what individual owns that machine, unless you are one of the relatively few who make use of its ad program or its usenet posting service. Even then, it still would have difficulty knowing who an actual person is. In addition, there is no sign that this information has been used to build up any cookie-linked profiles, as all.

As the world's most used search engine, Google has a ton of data flowing into it about requests. To instantly establish long-running profiles for everyone using it, automatically, is no simple task. In short, the sheer amount of data provides a great deal of anonymity.

"And the much-loved Google toolbar tells Google about every web page you look at." It certainly does. And it only does this after a very in your face notice when installing the toolbar that says that this has to be done for certain features to be enabled and that if you are concerned about this, you can install a different version of the toolbar. In short, no one can complain that the toolbar is doing something they weren't told about.
Danny Sullivan, United Kingdom

I find it quite worrying that such a large data base can be built up without even the user knowing. I think that Google as a search engine for all should inform more users that they are storing every search that is being performed.
Joe Kendrick, UK

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.




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