I’m sure you’ve heard about it; Net Neutrality has become a very popular phrase lately. No, it doesn’t refer to your amount of neutrality after taxes (then we’d need a Gross Neutrality as well). In a nutshell it describes an Internet where all data is deemed equal – or neutral. Whether being pumped out by a huge multinational company, a government, or originating with a lowly, humble blogger; data is data. The opposite of Net Neutrality would be an Internet where those who pay providers a fee have their data treated with special care, or fast-tracked.
In the United States the Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation into a deal that would see big entertainment companies like Netflix agree to pay a fee to Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon for faster video delivery. If you have a small company providing a similar service, and can’t compete with the fees the big guys are paying, your site will not get the express treatment. It may load … eventually, but it’s not a priority.
At one time Google was playing a key role in the fight for Net Neutrality, but the company seems to have backed off a wee bit lately. Could that be due to the fact that ISPs are not the only ones looking to create different strata of service? Search Neutrality is the notion that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance, and not on how much they are paid by individual websites. Flying in the face of Search Neutrality is the emerging trend to give search result prominence to those who have paid, even if other results may be more appropriate.
Let’s say you have a website called Blue electric left-handed widget wrenches ‘Я’ us that specializes, not surprisingly, in information about blue electric left-handed widget wrenches. And someone enters the following search query: “blue+electric+left-handed+widget+wrenches”. Given the uncommon topic, and the precise search details, your site should show up pretty high in the results. Yet you might find that All Sorts Of Wrenches Inc. places above you. Not as close a match as your site, but faring better than you in the search results. Could they have been given priority because they paid the search engine? You better believe it! Want to rate better? Cough up!
This reminded me of the underworld gimmick known as a ‘protection fee’ which evidently is no longer limited to shake-down artists. In the original version of this despicable activity a bar or restaurant proprietor is visited by a representative of a crime syndicate who strongly suggests that the owner subscribe to his security services. For a regular cash fee, his group will be pleased to see to it that no harm comes to the establishment. Should the owner refuse on the grounds that his or her place doesn’t need to be protected, amazingly within no time at all the windows might be broken and perhaps a small fire will mysteriously break out. The owner will subsequently be visited once again and asked to start paying the fee, as evidently he or she was mistaken and their bar is indeed a target. Obviously this is extortion, as the one offering the protection service is the one causing the damage. Pay up or look out, but all done under the guise of offering a valuable service.
There was a time when search engines scoured the World Wide Web for the best match to your query. The better they were at it, the more people would use their services and the more people looking at their site, the more advertising they could sell, and the higher their profit.
Not satisfied with mere billions in advertising revenue, search engines have started turning a profit from the actual search results. Not just from the pages that are clearly labeled as promoted, or paid, that pop up at the very top of your results page – there’s no problem with these – but from a system of squeezing cash from sites to ensure they are included in the general search results. If you don’t pay the search engine to include your site, it may be buried on page 746 of the results. Even if your site fulfills all the search parameters entered by the net surfer, the search engine may pass over you unless you have subscribed to a payment plan.
Search Engines Like Librarians
I used to think of search engines as being somewhat like librarians. When you couldn’t find what you wanted on your own, the reference librarian would put his or her skills and training to use and deliver to you the best results possible. There was no cost to the user for this, and the librarian received their salary for doing their job. But imagine if librarians said to writers and publishers, we’re not going to give your book a prominent place unless you subscribe to our library fund. Pay up or be overlooked.
Does the word payola come to mind? Back in the fifties and sixties when radio disc-jockeys actually jockeyed discs and had the last word on what they played, it didn’t take artists and promoters long to realize that the records DJs liked best were those that came with an envelope of cash. Priority was awarded based on kick-back, not merit.
The only difference was that payola started with the record company “buying” the DJ and was very hush-hush. The current threat to search neutrality originates with the search engines and is anything but secret.