Why is the tech industry up in arms about Google’s search algorithm leak?

Why is the tech industry up in arms about Google’s search algorithm leak?

One of the world’s biggest companies has found itself in hot water. Google is dealing with the effects of a massive leak that claimed to expose the inner workings of its search engine. The leak came to light on May 27 via tech entrepreneur Rand Fishkin, who said he “received an email from a person claiming to have access” to documents “from inside Google’s Search division.” A day later, the actual source of the leak, Erfan Azimi, the CEO of search engine optimization (SEO) agency EA Eagle Digital, came forward.Azimi gained access to 2,500 pages of documents relating to Google’s SEO operations. This is crucial because “Google’s Search algorithm is perhaps the most consequential system on the internet, dictating what sites live and die and what content on the web looks like,” said The Verge. The documents, which Google has since confirmed to be authentic, offer an “unprecedented look under the hood of how Search works — and [suggest] that Google hasn’t been entirely truthful about it for years.” Much of the leak contains sophisticated technical jargon, but it mainly “suggests that Google collects and potentially uses data that company representatives have said does not contribute to ranking webpages in Google Search, like clicks, Chrome user data, and more,” said The Verge, which is key because “choices Google makes on Search have a profound impact on anyone relying on the web for business.” 

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As a result, the leak “has stoked more distrust in Google just as it prepares to rewrite the rulebook,” said Hugh Langley and Lara O’Reilly for Business Insider. So “many website owners are preparing for a future in which the company hoovers up their content and delivers no visitors in return.” And for the people who work in SEO — some of them directly for Google — it has left them “lamenting a breakdown in the relationship between the search giant and the experts who helped it organize all that information.”  Perhaps most notable is that “some of the information revealed appears to contradict claims that the company has made publicly,” said Kyle Chayka for The New Yorker. For instance, Google Search apparently tracks “when and where users click, not just on Google’s core site but any page that is accessed within Google’s Chrome browser,” even though the company has “repeatedly denied factoring that data into its search algorithm.” This “reinforces an already long-held belief that Google’s public representatives regularly lie, mislead, and omit key information.” Google’s new approach makes it seem “content to bury the same material that it once was in the business of surfacing,” said Chayka. However, it is “still uncertain how useful this leaked information is today,” said Imad Khan for CNET. Some of these inner workings “could be out of date by now or these data points may have been collected but never used.” But while Google tends to tweak its algorithms on a regular basis, it is still a “rare look behind the curtain of Google’s core business,” especially because the company “has waged an ongoing battle with sites that fill Search results with low-quality content just to take in easy ad clicks.”What next? In confirming the authenticity of the leak, Google officials cautioned the public not to rush to judgment. The company “would caution against making inaccurate assumptions about Search based on out-of-context, outdated, or incomplete information,” Google spokesperson Davis Thompson said to The Verge in a statement. He added that the company has “shared extensive information about how Search works and the types of factors that our systems weigh, while also working to protect the integrity of our results from manipulation.”It remains to be seen where the company goes from here. But it is clear “that Google hasn’t been entirely truthful regarding how its search algorithm worked over the years,” said Mashable, and “as industry experts continue to pore through this massive document, we may soon find out some more interesting details hidden in Google’s search algorithm.” For small businesses, one crucial fact remains: The “key to online success is usually dependent on one major factor above all others: Your website’s ranking on Google Search.”

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