German justice minister Heiko Maas recently demanded that Google reveal its search algorithm. Unfortunately for him, and for the people of Germany, that’s simply never going to happen. Google has demonstrated a long history of keeping its search algorithms a tight secret, and it’s not about to compromise that history because of one man’s—or one country’s—request.
However, it’s important to understand why Germany is fixated on uncovering Google’s classified search engine algorithm, as well as why Google will probably never give it away. It’s more than just a battle of transparency versus proprietary control; Google truly believes it has the best interests of the online world at heart, but Germany does as well.
So who’s the justified party in this request and denial? And why does it matter for search marketers?
Let’s take a look at why justice minister Heiko Maas made the initial request. Originally made public in an interview with Financial Times, Maas explained that he is unhappy with Google’s actions in Europe as a whole, including its policies on the privacy of user data, and the perceived monopoly it has on the world of online search. As a result, and in the interest of consumer protection, Maas believes that uncovering Google’s algorithm will give users more visibility and more information about the online tool they so regularly use.
Google immediately and predictably pushed back. It’s kept its search algorithm an uncompromisingly tight secret for more than 15 years, despite countless requests—both public and private—to release that information to the public. Google officially responded that they would not comply with the request, stating that publishing their proprietary search algorithm would mean compromising its trade secrets and making the search engine more vulnerable to spammers.
Both sides have valid concerns.
German justice minister Maas speaks for more than just his own country. His request came as a result of Google’s actions and presence throughout all of Europe, and by extension, the entire world. There are Internet users relying on Google as their search engine of choice in almost every corner of the globe, and the issues Maas sees are present everywhere.
The case for user privacy
The European Union tends to care about the privacy of its citizens a little more than the United States. As a result, the EU is concerned about the types of information Google has on its users, as well as the information that is semi-permanently stored on its databases. For example, the EU enforces a “right to be forgotten law,” which legally mandates that private citizens have the right to permanently remove old information about them that exists on the web. Google has resisted this mandate, offering a compromise that has since been rejected by EU officials. By revealing its search algorithm in full, users can learn more about their privacy and learn what they can do to protect it.
The case for transparency and user safety
In general, consumers have a right to know about the products they buy; this is why ingredient lists are mandated to be displayed on food products. Barring proprietary secrets, this information should be made public, and Maas would argue that all German (and European) citizens have a right to know what makes Google’s search engine work. It’s a relatively weak argument, since Google can immediately counter that their search algorithm is a trade secret, and its revelation could damage its integrity as a business.
The case against monopolization
In the United States, Google carries about two-thirds of all web searches, making it a powerhouse, but leaving a bit of room for the competition. In the European Union, however, Google is used for 90 percent of all searches. For years, the EU has been trying to make headway in the case against Google’s unrivaled power in the search world. While it is true that Google is dominating the competition, there isn’t much they can do. Nobody is forcing users to rely on Google; there are many other alternatives, such as Yahoo! or Bing. This makes it difficult to hold Google accountable to anti-trust laws, and allows Google’s reign to continue.
Google has a strong case as well. Rather than focusing on the individual safety and privacy of its users, Google wants to make sure the web experience for the population as a whole is as good as it can be—and at the end of the day, they want to make a profit too.
The case for proprietary secrets
Google is a for-profit company. They are responsible for 90 percent of searches in the EU because they’re the best search engine around, and that’s a direct result of the effort they’ve spent on improving their algorithm over the years. If you give that algorithm—and all that work—away for free, anybody could build a similar search engine, and Google’s value would instantly plummet. As a private company that employs thousands, Google wants to stay profitable and healthy.
The case for web quality
There’s another big reason why Google keeps its algorithm secretive. Back in the old days of SEO, search marketers would take advantage of Google’s loophole-ridden algorithm any way they could, including spamming keywords and backlinks across the web. This led to a poor web experience for online searchers, and an online world riddled with low-quality, irrelevant content. As Google’s algorithm became more refined—and less predictable—the web gradually evolved to reward sites with high-quality content and structure.
Google would argue that making its algorithm public would instantly take us back to a darker time, when any search marketer could use shady manipulative tactics to take advantage of the holes in the algorithm’s structure. By keeping the algorithm a secret, Google is keeping the Internet on a stable path forward to even more sophisticated content and search marketers who are more interested in providing a good user experience than in manipulating their rank.
Google is an international company with an international dominance, so even if Germany passes restrictions or imposes fines on the search engine giant, Google will likely be unaffected. Nobody is forced to use Google. They use it because it’s the best search engine available. As a result, people will continue to demand it even if its top-secret algorithm is never exposed, and even if their privacy and consumer safety are at risk.
Google is a powerhouse, people love it, and it isn’t technically breaking any rules. A public and international movement that demands the revelation of its algorithm might eventually sway the search giant, but such a movement would take years—or decades—to swell. In that amount of time, search will have evolved so far that this conflict may no longer be relevant.
The ultimate takeaway here is that while Germany wants Google to be more transparent, Google is still in control, and for the most part, online searchers don’t care. They just want to log on, type in a search, and see the relevant results they’re used to. Unless users start caring enough to switch to an alternative search engine, Google won’t bat an eye; they’ll keep their search algorithm under wraps no matter who starts requesting it.