Google has been making more headlines than usual of late, but very little of it has been the kind that occasions money smiles in the boardroom. That is, except for one story that was very hard to notice.
The most recent anti-Google salvo came by way of consumer outrage when the company announced it acquired offline purchase data from credit card companies to tie to into its ad network?. As if that were not enough, Google was named as a defendant in a lawsuit brought against an app developer by New Mexico's attorney general. The complaint: making apps available to children that track and harvest their data.
But there's more. YouTube set sail in the heavy seas of censorship--taking on water from both within and without--the former for banning conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and the latter coming in the form of European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's move to fine companies that fail to remove extremist content from social media within an hour of that content first being reported.
No wonder with all of this press coverage, another news story went largely unnoticed. It's been dubbed Google Medic, and what seems to have happened was the rollout of a major change to the company's search algorithm. It happened sometime in August. The change effectively the placed thousands of companies on the backburner of the Internet, incinerating still others entirely. As the name of the event suggests, the primary targets (read: victims) of the change were medical and health websites, but the message should be to all businesses with a stake in how they appear online; no matter the sector they occupy.
While Google casts a wide net across advertising, video, mobile devices, and many other industries, its search algorithm is what put it on the map. The original method devised by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, which implemented a data-driven approach to categorize and prioritize what's seen online is still effectively the DNA of all of the company's other endeavors. It informs Google's bottomless appetite for data of any sort, be it location, purchasing or browser history, personal interests, etc.
The search algorithm itself is a closely kept secret, on par with KFC or Coca-Cola's recipes. There is core mission logic to this: if Google were to be explicit about how it formulates search results against specific criteria and factors, it would open itself to unscrupulous businesses or individuals finding loopholes to artificially increase their own relevance. One need only look at the activity of Russian troll factories on social media platforms to imagine where a situation like that could lead.
That said, the flip side of this necessary secrecy gives the company the power to alter the lives of individuals and the future prosperity of any business or organization without explanation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel identified the dangers of this set of circumstances in 2016, saying "[a]lgorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception; they can shrink our expanse of information."
Returning to Google Medic, it appears that what Merkel saw happening to individuals can be visited on a larger scale. Organizations large and small can be dinged by the caprices and/or vagaries of Google's hidden data practice. A post-mortem study from search engine analysts Moz found that many major websites experienced double digit declines in search-based traffic over the course of the first week of August, including travelocity.com (-63.4%), seriouseats.com (-50.5%), century21.com (-44.8%), and fortune.com (-31.4%).
Smaller-scale and specialist websites are definitely feeling the pinch. "We see patients from all around the world," said Dr. Paul Perito, who runs a private surgical clinic in Florida. "Search traffic is pivotal to that." Perito said Google Medic impacted his site as well as those of several other colleagues in the medical industry, but declined to specify the decrease in traffic.
Google has characteristically remained vague, stating via Twitter: "As with any update, some sites may note drops or gains. There's nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well... There's no "fix" for pages that may perform less well other than to remain focused on building great content."
There are very few companies with as much data as Google. The company dominates the digital marketplace both on- and, increasingly, offline. Were their privacy record spotless, this would still be a matter of grave concern. While government agencies clamor for backdoors into encrypted environments in the interest of public safety, it's worth wondering if the government should have a backdoor for consumer advocacy and to ensure a level playing field to all webizens.