Thursday, April 01, 2010

Anti-search engines: they don't exist, do they?

As I said in my previous post, an idea of an anti-search engine -- one that scrambles your search results, making you unfindable -- made me think of some strange things search engines might do, or why they are not doing them.

Obviously, no matter how much you wish to stay hidden, you can't make someone use an anti-search engine instead of a real one. But what if you could convince search engines to hide you? Companies now pay for higher placement in search results, but what if you could pay to be placed lower? Specifically, if you don't want certain web pages that mention you to appear high in search results -- for example, if they say something unflattering about you, or have ugly pictures of you -- you could pay the search engine to place them so low that most searchers will never get to them simply because they don't have time to wade through a hundred pages of Google results. Most of us probably have something on the internet we don't necessarily want someone important (like a prospective employer or a date) to see. Yet I never heard of search engines engaging in a practice lowering the rank of certain search results. The more I think about it, the more potential issues I see with it -- many more than paying for higher placement in search results. The two concepts are not symmetrical.

There may be a conflict of interest between an individual who wants to lay low, and a website (which does not belong to that individual) that wants to maintain high rank. For example, you, Joe Smith, might want all web forums that say you're an idiot, to appear very low in search results based on "your" keywords (just what exactly are "your" keywords, is another thorny issue). The owners of those forums, however, don't like to rank low. How would a search engine resolve this conflict of interest?

But maybe there is not always a conflict of interest. If a site ranks low based on "your" keywords, it won't necessarily damage the site's rating in general. Unless you are a celebrity, the site has probably achieved its high rank based on other keywords than your name. Your name is not what drives traffic to it.

What if you are a celebrity, and the site has achieved its high ranking precisely because your name is on it? Maybe people flock ot the site to see a paparazzi picture of you with a double chin and no makeup. You don't want the public to see that picture, but if the search engine pushes the site's rank down, it will harm its traffic. How should a search engine resolve this? By auctioning off the relevant keywords (such as your name) to the highest bidder? If you really want it to rank low, you'll pay more than the site can afford to pay to keep it high? If you are a celebrity, you may also be rich, and thus able to afford a betting war or a court battle.

And a court battle may be your only recourse if, despite being neither rich nor famous, you find yourself exploited by a website that contains damaging information. Maybe it's one of those vicious college gossip forums where students speculate about other students' sex lives and openly name names. Posting rumors is entirely the point of such sites' existence, so of course they would not agree to be lowered in search results based on one victim's name -- otherwise all victims would request the same. But if there is a court battle, how does the court decide what the relevant keywords are? Would the victim's name be enough? Or should the keywords also include all the email addresses the victim has ever used, or also his/her profession, and cities he/she has lived in? E.g. "Joe Smith web designer Austin Texas"? That's tricky.

In the days of the dotcom "land grab", people and companies battled over who had a right to a particular domain name. Courts had to decide whether Joe Smith the individual had a higher right to than, say, Joe Smith Trucking Inc. They usually ruled in favor of companies. But complexity of such decisions pales in comparison to complexity of deciding which keywords a person is entitled to.

Considering all this, it's probably a good thing that no search engine, to my knowledge, provides a service of pushing your search results down. Though I have to wonder how many of them have thought about it.


Hmmm, I could have spun this post off as an April Fool's joke. But no -- my analytical nature would ruin any attempt at humor. So you, dear reader, are safe. :-)

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