Google should open source what actually matters: their search ranking algorithm

Websites live or die based on how a small group of programmers at Google decide their sites should rank in Google’s main search results.  As the “router” of the vast majority of traffic on the internet, Google’s secret ranking algorithm is probably is the most powerful piece of software code on the planet.

Google talks a lot about openness and their commitment to open source software. What they are really doing is practicing a classic business strategy known as “commoditizing the complement“*.

Google makes 99% of their revenue by selling text ads for things like plane tickets, dvd players and malpractice lawyers. Many of these ads are syndicated to non-Google properties. But the anchor that gives Google their best “inventory” is the main search engine at Google.com.  And the secret sauce behind Google.com is the algorithm for ranking search results. If Google is really committed to openness, it is this algorithm that they need to open source.

The alleged argument against doing so is that search spammers would be able to learn from the algorithm to improve their spamming methods. This form of argument is an old argument in the security community known as “security through obscurity.” Security through obscurity is a technique generally associated with companies like Microsoft and is generally opposed as ineffective and risky by security experts. When you open source something you give the bad guys more info, but you also enlist an army of good guys to help you fight them.

Until Google open sources what really matters – their search ranking algorithm – you should dismiss all their other open-source talk as empty posturing. And millions of websites will have to continue blindly relying on a small group of anonymous engineers in charge of the secret algorithm that determines their fate.

* You can understand a large portion of technology business strategy by understanding strategies around complements. One major point: companies generally try to reduce the price of their products complements (Joel Spolsky has an excellent discussion of the topic here). If you think of the consumer as having a willingness to pay a fixed N for product A plus complementary product B, then each side is fighting for a bigger piece of the pie. This is why, for example, cable companies and content companies are constantly battling. It is also why Google wants open source operating systems to win, and for broadband to be cheap and ubiquitous. [link to full post]

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