The Google Voice: Free Speech in Search

A Monthlong Magnification of Google: the Company, the Technologies, and the Extracurricular Activities

“There is no human involvement or manipulation of results, which is why users have come to trust Google as a source of objective information untainted by paid placement.” (1) This is what Google’s Technology Overview page used to say. Now, this phrase is noticeably missing. (2) Human involvement or not, Google’s search results have been recognized as having what seems like a very human right – freedom of speech.

From the beginning, Google founders recognized that their search engine was a business and not merely a resource. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote a paper about the creation of Google as Ph.D. candidates at Stanford. In that paper they stated, “we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” (3) Today, 99% of Google’s revenue comes from ads. (4) Brin and Page’s early acknowledgement that search results would likely be biased toward advertisers, combined with Google’s search results being considered protected free speech, could change the way users view Google’s search results. But how did Google’s search results become recognized as protected free speech? It started with one company: Search King. (5)

Search King

Google’s Page Rank is a system developed to determine a page’s “value” and assign the web page a rank. That rank is essentially what determines where a page will appear in Google’s search results page for a relevant query. (6) Search King (7) was a company selling online advertising space on sites that were highly ranked on Google’s Page Rank system and would pay the websites based in part on their Google Page Rank. (8) Search King’s page rank suddenly dropped, along with the Page Rank of some of its affiliates. This downgrade meant that Search King’s position in natural results dropped dramatically. Search King sued Google arguing that the Page Rank had been intentionally and maliciously downgraded. (9)

Google admitted to intentionally downgrading Search King’s site and some of its affiliate sites, but stated that Google has “no obligation to rank Search King’s site at its desired level, or to include Search King’s web site on its search engine.” Google argued that its Page Rank is protected free speech and protected by the first amendment. (10) The court found in favor of Google, saying that “it could be argued that Google acted maliciously and wrongfully”, but Google’s actions were privileged free speech. Also, the court stated that no website can demand to be accessible via Google. (11) The end result here – Google’s search results can rank and position sites however they choose. No need to rely on relevancy or algorithms if they choose not to.

A couple of years after the Search King case, a similar case came along with similar results. Kinderstart (12) had their Page Rank drastically reduced in March 2005 and immediately lost 70% of their traffic. (13) As a result, KinderStart and other plaintiffs tried, unsuccessfully, to form a class action lawsuit to recover damages from Google for the downgrades in Page Rank. (14) The case was eventually dismissed and Google’s freedom of speech remained intact.

Food For Thought

With a search market share at almost 67%, (15) a sudden and dramatic drop in search position on Google could be devastating to a company. And, if a company has no control in improving or rebuilding their search position, there may be no way to recover.

(1) Google Corporate Information, Technology Overview, last visited January 15, 2008.
(2) Google Corporate Information, Technology Overview, last visited April 24, 2008.
(3) Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Appendix B, Computer Science Department, Stanford University, 1998.
(4) Google 10-K, Annual Report (filed 2/15/2008).
(5) Search King v. Google, Inc., CV-02-1457 2003 WL 21464568 (W.D. Okla. May 27, 2003).
(6) Google Corporate Information, Technology Overview, last visited April 24, 2008.
(7) Search King.
(8) Search King; Complaint, Search King v. Google (filed 10/17/2002).
(9) Search King.
(10) Search King at 2.
(11) Search King at 11-12.
(12) KinderStart.com LLC v. Google, Inc., C 06-2057 JF (N.D. Cal. March 16, 2007).
(13) KinderStart.com LLC at 4.
(14) KinderStart.com LLC.
(15) Hitwise, March 2008, based on volume of searches.