Some Followup on the Unfounded Claim Google Replaces Queries for Financial Gain

Last night, I published a short piece detailing my understanding of Megan Gray’s claim, made in Wired, that Google silently replaces search queries with ones which are more lucrative for the company. I sat on that for a couple of days because I was hoping someone would be able to substantiate, refute, or contextualize Gray’s story.

Well, in waiting for reporting elsewhere, I missed a lengthy public denial from Google “Search Liason” Danny Sullivan, published October 4. And, yesterday, one small but important piece of the puzzle arrived.

Adam Kovacevich:

I asked Google PR if they could share the trial exhibit that @megangrA’s Wired piece referred to (which this tweet responds to ⬇️). Here’s what they shared: […]

When you see the slide, two things are clear:

  1. Based on the template, this slide is probably not from the “Ranking for Research” (PDF) presentation. However, it is possible — Google’s presentations often mix and match slide formatting, and do not even have a consistent display of the company’s own logo.

  2. The title of the slide posted by Kovacevich is “Advertisers benefit via closing recall gaps”. This is a slide about how advertising in Google results can target synonyms and contextually related phrases. It does not appear to relate to “organic” search results at all and, as I mentioned before, is a publicly documented feature.

Thanks to Andy Baio for pointing me to these updates.

Update: In a Twitter thread, Gray is standing by her story — though not in full — and seems to be upset with Wired’s response:

Google demanded Wired take down my op-ed, pointing to a single page I saw in court for only a few seconds. Wired sent it to me, and I said I needed to see all the pages shown in open court. Google didn’t send. Without speaking with me, Wired deleted my op-ed.


Bottom line, even if semantic matching is a red herring, my op-ed is still solid for its central point. Google Search team and Google Ad team are working together to turn non-commercial queries into commercial queries, which hurts users and advertisers, but makes Google richer.

In a statement to Charlie Warzel, a Google spokesperson denied this kind of cooperation between those teams.

It would not surprise me if aspects of Gray’s interpretation turn out to be true. It seems plausible to me that search and ads rankings could be inappropriately suggestive in ways that financially benefit Google. But the documentation in Gray’s thread does not arrive at that conclusion.

Worse, I also think Gray’s original story has made it harder to understand this. Consider all those U.S. congressional hearings, in which the CEO of a large ad-supported tech company is hauled before representatives, who then allege those businesses sell user data. That only tees up the CEO to respond that they do not, in fact, sell user data, which obfuscates their actually creepy actions. Gray’s article has a similar effect: Google gets to deny a very specific accusation without needing to respond to the more vibes-based claims it contains.

Gray, however, is right in saying the trial continues to have a level of secrecy which makes it difficult to develop a more complete and accurate picture of what Google is actually doing.