Can Google Results Be Trusted Anymore?

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On the heels of accusations that the management of Alphabet Inc’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Google may have tilted some search results after the election of Donald Trump, and that the company might censor results to get more market share in China, several employees went so far as to address the problem in internal email.  Even if the accusations are not true, they have to taint belief of Google’s objectivity in some quarters.

After the revelation of the China charges, some Google employees put together a code of ethics. It suggested that search results be monitored by Google employees, a “plan for transparency” in search results, and, most radically, the ability to opt out of work employees find ethically compromising.

Management, in particular CEO Sundar Pichai, has aggressively denied that Google’s results are ever slanted at all. However, press reports about the tensions have made them part of a huge public debate about the search engine’s future.

Google management may be able to make the case that results were not slanted because of bias against decisions made by Trump. The China results issue is more complicated. China has the largest online population in the world with estimates as high as 775 million. Google has been almost entirely blocked out of the China. Local search company Baidu, Inc. (NASDAQ: BIDU) has over three quarters of the market, and has been in that position for years.

Google was not always an outcast in China. It had over a third of the market prior to 2009. Google refused to censor results as the Chinese government demanded. It effectively abandoned the market in 2010, which potential cost it billions of dollars going forward.

The draw of the Chinese market may be too much for Google to resist. That leaves the chance that via some level of negotiation it will meet the Chinese government in a compromise. Even if Google only gives a little, it may ruin its reputation.

News and rumor that Google would alter its search results at all, for any reason, make the ability of the public to trust results fall precipitously.