Search engines, bugs, and ethics

by Donna Fontenot December 22nd, 2004 

You will often see the argument that [insert search engine here] owes webmasters nothing, and that they can do whatever they want with their results. Therefore, webmasters should not complain about bugs that prevent their websites from ranking. I suppose that, legally, this is true. I imagine that any attempted lawsuit would likely be defeated. After all, search engines do not have a contract with webmasters, so even if the search engine is *at fault* because a bug in their algo prevents a site from ranking, the lack of a contract would make the search engine not liable for any loss of revenue to the site owner. Ok, I'm no expert on law, but that would seem to make sense to me anyway.

Setting the legal issues aside, however, do search engines have an ethical responsibility to fix bugs that *discriminate* against websites? First, lets define the term ethical. According to dictionary.com, ethical means "Being in accordance with the accepted principles of right and wrong that govern the conduct of a profession" Next, lets define the term discriminate. According to dictionary.com, descriminate means "To make distinctions on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit; show preference or prejudice". So, can an algo bug that discriminates against sites be considered unethical? I believe it can. If the search engine is aware of the bug, yet does nothing to fix the bug, then that search engine is consciously allowing results to be discriminatory and therefore the search engine itself can be regarded as unethical.

Who cares, right? I mean, it's not like there is anything anyone can do about an unethical search engine. So why even bring it up? I bring it up because a certain search engine has established a trust factor amongst the public at large. By using slogans such as "Don't Be Evil", they have made an implied promise that they will be ethical and non-discriminatory in presenting the results of a search. When a known bug in their algo breaks this promise, and the search engine does nothing to resolve the problem, the public should be made aware of it. The public should know that their trust may be misplaced. In a situation where there is no legal recourse, only public opinion can counted on to make a difference.

What am I blathering on about? If you have not been following the different threads on different forums over the last year that addresses the Google 302 redirect page hijacking problem, try doing a search and start reading. This is and has been a serious bug for far far too long. I have addressed it before, but it is time to re-address it again. And I will continue to bring the subject up on occasion as long as the problem continues to exist.

In my opinion, search engines DO owe webmasters something – the assurance that known bugs which cause unethical, discriminatory search results, will be fixed.

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2 Responses to “Search engines, bugs, and ethics”

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