It is no secret that Google is growing from strength to strength, not only improving its own search engine but also investing in video (YouTube), blogging (Blogger), browsers (Chrome), mobile phones (Android) and so much more.
In an editorial piece, The New York Times makes the argument that Google - in a position to place its fingers in many pies and look after its own invested interests - could potentially manipulate its own search results to its advantage, showing its own interests above those of the competition.
Whether Google decides to play completely fair or help itself is a contentious issue. Revealing its algorithm will force Google to do the former and play fair. This piece offers some possible solutions:
"Some early suggestions for how to accomplish [a fair editorial policy] include having Google explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its tweaks. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those tweaks."
It is true that revealing elements of Google's secretive algorithm would clear this. For example, if YouTube were to rank higher than other video-sharing websites, it would be noticeable whether the ranking appears naturally or forced by Google.
However, there could be other wider implications of revealing the algorithm. Google's success so far is because its algorithm is a secret. Even so, as Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan points out in his take on the New York Times piece:
"Google constantly speaks at search marketing and other events to answer questions about how they list sites and how to improve coverage... Google is constantly giving interviews about its algorithm..."
Although the algorithm is a secret, Google helps webmasters, not by telling them outright what the algorithm is, but by telling them how they can help themselves with regards to how the algorithm operates, and why it displays the search results it does.
After all, what if everyone knew the algorithm? Google's Marissa Mayer explains (originally printed in the Financial Times but reproduced on Google's Public Policy Blog):
"If search engines were forced to disclose their algorithms and not just the signals they use, or worse, if they had to use a standardised algorithm, spammers would certainly use that knowledge to game the system, making the results suspect ."
We are reminded of an incident last year when a Google search for "ugg boots" displayed seven spam/fraud websites within the first page (top ten) results. In this instance, the websites used suspect, black hat SEO techniques to get to the top of Google for that keyword. Surely revealing the algorithm would only encourage such practices - both good and bad; white hat, black hat and everything in between - affecting the quality of the search engine results shown, and in turn damaging Google's reputation as (mostly) showing the most natural, "neutral" results. Otherwise, Google would have to invest much more heavily in moderating the results and weeding out those websites manipulating the algorithm, which is likely to be a larger number if the way Google operates is disclosed.
All of this is without even considering governmental intervention, as mentioned in the second half of the above quote from the New York Times piece. Some of the bigger sceptics on the WebmasterWorld forum have expressed their fears that, amongst other things, the government may suggest changes to the algorithm from which they themselves could benefit.
Whatever the outcome, although Danny Sullivan believes the First Amendment and the fact that Yahoo survived a similar incident will save Google from such a fate, it will be interesting to see what - if anything - transpires, whether such action would be seen as a necessity as Google continues to grow and dominate the search engine world as well as other industries.