A Bad Sign for Google

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Reading through Brad Stone's epic story on "Google 3.0," I came away really worried about Google's search offerings. But it's not Stone's analysis of the move to install Larry Page as CEO that caused me to wonder about the Internet giant.

This is what did: Late last year, The New York Times ran an almost unbelievable story about an evil online merchant who did hateful things to get people to write about his website, thereby increasing his search ranking. Google responded swiftly to the problem and it went away, supposedly. Stone summarizes:

When The New York Times exposed a fraudulent eyeglass merchant in December that was featured high in Google search results, Sing­hal assembled a team that in three days came up with a batch of "signals," or indications that could better discriminate between dishonest merchants and legitimate ones. He says such sellers are now heavily penalized and nearly invisible in Google's results.

So, this seems like a happy ending. But think about it this way: Thousands of engineers work on the product and it took a Times article for them to notice. Isn't it almost a rule that the Times is the first or last to know everything? And in this case, they can't have been the first.

No offense to the Times, which did a great job reporting the story, but it shouldn't take a front page anecdote for Google to figure out that there were dishonest merchants gaming the system in that way. Google should be steps ahead of the merchants, let alone of the people writing about the merchants.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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