Category Archives: search

Google Assistant was all over IFA in Berlin. What are the implications?

Last week I attended IFA in Berlin, perhaps Europe’s biggest consumer electronics event, and was struck by the ubiquity of Google Assistant. The company spent big on promoting its digital assistant both outside and inside the venue.

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Mach mal, Google; or in English, Go Google.

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On the stands and in press briefings I soon lost count of who was supporting Google’s voice assistant. A few examples:

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JBL/Harman in its earbuds

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Lenovo with its Home Control Solutions – Lenovo also uses its own cloud and will support Amazon Alexa

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LG with audio, TV, kitchen, home automation and more

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Bang & Olufsen with its smart speakers. No logo, but it is using Google Assistant both as a feature in itself (voice search and so on) and to control other audio devices.

And Sony with its TVs and more. For example, then new AF9 and ZF9 series: “Using the Google Assistant with both the AF9 and ZF9 will be even easier. Both models have built-in microphones that will free the hands; now you simply talk to the TV to find what you quickly want, or to ask the Google Assistant to play TV shows, movies, and more.*

I was only at IFA for the pre-conference press days so this is just a snapshot of what I saw; there were many more Google Assistant integrations on display, and quite a few (though not as many) for Amazon Alexa.

It is fair to say then that Google is treating this as a high priority and having considerable success in getting vendors to sign up.

What is Google Assistant?

Google Assistant really only needs three things in order to work. A microphone, to hear you. An internet connection, to send your voice input to its internet service for voice to text transcription, and then to its AI/Search service to find a suitable response. And a speaker, to output the result. You can get it as a product called Google Home but it is the software and internet service that counts.

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Vendors of smart devices – anything that has an internet connection – can develop integrations so that Google Assistant can control them. So you can say, “Hey Google, turn on the living room light” and it will be so. Cool.

Amazon Alexa has similar features and this is Google’s main competition. Alexa was first and ties in well with Amazon services such as shopping and media. However Google has the advantage of its search services, its control of Android, and its extensive personal data derived from search, Android, Google Maps and location services, GMail and more. This means Google can do better AI and richer personalisation.

Natural language UI

Back in March I attended an AI Assistant Summit in London organised by Re-Work. One of the speakers was Yariv Adan, a Product Lead at Google Assistant.

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I attend lots of presentations but this one made a particular impact on me. Adan believes that natural language UI is the next big technological shift. The preceding ones he identified were the Internet in the nineties and smartphones in the early years of this century. Adan envisages an era in which we no longer constantly pull out devices.

“I believe the next revolution is happening now, powered by AI. I call it the paradigm switch to natural UI. Instead of humans adapting to machines, machines adapt to humans. What we’re trying to create is we interact with machines the same way we interact with each other, in a natural way. Meaning using natural language, showing things, pointing at things, assuming context, assuming a human-like memory, expecting personality, humour, opinion, some kind of an emotional connection, empathy.

[In future] it is not the device changing, it is the device disappearing. We are not going to interact with devices any more. We are starting to interact with this AI entity, an ambient entity that exists everywhere.”

Note: If you ever read Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels, you will recognise this as very like his Multivac computer, which hears and responds to your questions wherever you are.

“Imagine now that everything is connected, that the entity follows you. That there is no more device that you need to take out, turn on, speak to it. It’s around you, it’s on the TV, it’s in the speakers, it’s in your headphones, it’s in the watch, it’s in the auto, it’s there. Internet of things, any connected device that only has a speaker you can actually start interacting with that thing,”

said Adan.

Adan gave a number of demonstrations. Incidentally, he never uttered the words “Hey Google”. Simply, he spoke into his phone, where I presume some special version of Google Assistant was running. In particular, he was keen to show how the AI is learning about context and memory. So he asked what is the largest castle in the UK where people live. Answer: Windsor Castle. Then, Who built it? When? Is it open now? How can I get there by public transport? What about food? In each case, the Assistant answered as a human would, understanding that the topic was Windsor Castle. “I found some restaurants within 0.4 miles,” said the Assistant, betraying a touch of computer-style logic.

“Thank you you’re awesome,” says Adan. “Not a problem”, responds the Assistant. This is an example of personality or emotion, key factors, said Adan, in making interaction natural.

Adan also talked about personalisation. “Show me my flight”. The Assistant knows he is away from home and also has access to his mailbox, from where it has parse flight details. So it answers this generic question with specific details about tomorrow’s flight to Zurich.

“Where did I park my car?” In this case, Adan had taken a picture of his car after parking. The Assistant knew the location of the picture and was able to show both the image and its place on a map.

“I want to show how we use some of that power for the ecosystem that we have built … we’re trying to make that revolution to a place where you don’t need to think about the machine any more, where you just interact in a way that is natural. I am optimistic, I think the revolution is happening now.”

Implications and unintended consequences

An earlier speaker at the Re-Work event (sorry I forget who it was) noted that voice systems give simplified results compared to text-based searches. Often you only get one result. Back in the nineties, we used to talk about “10 blue links” as the typical result of a search. This meant that you had some sort of choice about where you clicked, and an easy way to get several different perspectives. Getting just one result is great if the answer is purely factual and is correct, but reinforces the winner-takes-all tendency. Instead of being on the first page of results, you have to be top. Or possibly pay for advertising; that aspect has not yet emerged in the voice assistant world.

If we get into the habit of shopping via voice assistants, it will be disruptive for brands. Maybe Amazon Basics will do well, if users simply say “get me some A4 paper” rather than specifying a brand. Maybe more and more decisions will be taken for you. “Get me a takeaway dinner”, perhaps, with the assistant knowing both what you like, and what you ate yesterday and the day before.

All this is speculation, but it is obvious that a shift from screens to voice for both transactions and information will have consequences for vendors and information providers; and that probably it will tend to reduce rather than increase diversity.

What about your personal data? This is a big question and one that the industry hates to talk about. I heard nothing about it at IFA. The assumption was that if you could turn on a light, or play some music, without leaving your chair, that must be a good thing. Yet, having a device or devices in your home listening to your every word (in case you might say “Hey Google”) is something that makes me uncomfortable. I do not want Google reading my emails or tracking my location, but it is becoming hard to avoid.

For most people, Google Assistant will just be a feature of their TV, or audio system, or a way to call up recipes in the kitchen.

From Google’s perspective though, it is safe to assume that the ability to collect data is a key reason for its strong promotion and drive behind Google Assistant. That data has enormous value. Targeted advertising is the start, but it also provides deep insight into how we live, trends in human behaviour, changing patterns of consumption, and much more. When things are going wrong with our health, our finances or our relationships, it is not implausible that Google may know before we do.

This is a lot of power to give a giant US corporation; and we should also note that in some scenarios, if the US government were to demand that data be handed over, a company like Google has no choice but to comply.

Personalisation can make our lives better, but also has the potential to harm us. An area of concern is that of shared risk, such as health insurance. Insurers may be reluctant to give policies to those people most likely to make a claim. Could Google’s data store somehow end up impacting our ability to insure, or its cost?

Personalisation is always a trade-off. Organisation gets my data; I get a benefit. I shop at a supermarket and this is fairly transparent. I use a loyalty card so the shop knows what I buy; in return I get discount points and special offers.

In the case of Google Assistant it is not so transparent. The EU’s GDPR legislation has helped, giving citizens the right to access their data and the right to be forgotten. However, we are still in the era of one-sided privacy policies and in many cases the binary choice of agree, or do not use our services. This becomes a problem if the service provider has anything close to a monopoly, which is true in Google’s case. Regulation, it seems to me, is exactly the right answer to the risks inherent in putting too much power in the hands of a business entity.

For myself, I am happy to cross the room and turn on the light, and to find my flight in my calendar. The trade-off is not worth it. But if Adan’s “ambient entity” comes to pass (which is actually most likely Google) I am not sure of the extent to which I will have a choice.

Adan’s work is terrific and the ability for machines to converse with humans in something close to a natural way is a huge technical achievement. I have nothing but respect for him and his team. It is part of a wider picture though, about data gathering, personalisation, and control of information and transactions, and it seems to me that this deserves more attention.

Reflecting on Google’s power: a case for regulation?

Via Martin Belam’s blog I came across this account of how the well-known flower vendor Interflora has, it is claimed, been penalised by Google for violation of its webmaster guidelines on paid links:

Searching for the terms [Flowers], [florist], [flower delivery], [flowers online] and hundreds of other related search terms yielded the interflora.co.uk domain in first place – until yesterday afternoon.  Now the website does not even appear for its own brand name.

Possibly by no coincidence, an official Google post reminds us of the rules:

We do take this issue very seriously, so we recommend you avoid selling (and buying) links that pass PageRank in order to prevent loss of trust, lower PageRank in the Google Toolbar, lower rankings, or in an extreme case, removal from Google’s search results.

I find this troubling. Here are a few statements (some may be contentious) that taken together will, I hope, express why.

1. Google has a market-dominating position in search, certainly in the UK. With good reason, users wishing to visit Interflora’s site are more likely to type “interflora” into a search engine, probably Google, then to type the URL directly. The combined address bar and search box in most browsers encourages this. Many users probably do not appreciate the difference. Of course they might also type “order flowers” into the box, delegating to Google the responsibility for finding suitable sites.

2. In consequence of 1, Google has direct and immediate power over the amount of business that will be achieved by a company trading online. In some cases that might be make-or-break, in some cases not, but it is a significant influence.

3. A further consequence is that Google’s search and ranking algorithms form an incentive to businesses to do all they can to climb higher in the search ranking. Since this appears to be influenced by incoming links (though probably less so than it once was) Google’s algorithms attempt to judge which incoming links are meaningful and which are not. Paid links fall into into the latter category, hence the guidelines which prohibit them.

4. Despite (3) above, the internet is infested with paid links and link exchanges. Even running a small site like mine, I get thousands of paid link and link exchange requests every year. The implication is that Google is not all that good at ignoring and/or penalising them, otherwise the activity would cease.

5. Worth noting: web site owners are free to accept paid links and vendors are free to buy them. They are not doing wrong. The only disincentives are first, whether you want to fill your site with worthless links, and second, whether you will be penalised by Google for doing so.

6. Google’s process for determining whether or not a particular web destination is down-ranked is not transparent. This is for good reasons, insofar as a transparent process would arguably be easier to game. On the other hand, this also means that a business which is penalised has no recourse other than to plead with Google, unless it felt inclined to experiment with legal action (prohibitively expensive and uncertain for most).

7. In fact there is another option, which is to advertise with Google, a form of paid link which the search giant is happy to accept. It seems to me obvious that this form of advertising is designed to look similar to unpaid search results, despite some small effort to distinguish them with small print and a light background colour change:

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It is not clear to me that this intermingling of paid and organic results is in the user’s best interests.

8. It is also obvious that advertising in this form is more important in cases where a business is absent from organic search results. It follows that Google has a direct incentive to penalise businesses by downranking them, since it has the potential to bring more advertising business. Please do not misunderstand: I am not accusing Google of doing this and have no reason to believe that it does.

9. Users of Google will be grateful that it attempts to improve the value of its search results by reducing the influence of meaningless incoming links. On the other hand, I find it difficult to understand why a user who typed “interflora” into Google would not want to see the official site at the top of the list, since it is a legitimate business and not in any sense malicious. Of course they do in fact see this, judging from my own experiment minutes ago, but it is an advertisement and not an organic link. The top organic link is not Interflora’s own site.

10. Pause for thought: what would be the effect on Google’s business if it put ads below organic search results rather than above?

11. The only rationale for (9) above is that Google considers it worth inconveniencing its users (presuming you do not accept that it simply wants to sell more ads) for the sake of the higher objective of penalising sites which, in its view, breach its guidelines.

12. We all have a choice whether to use Google or not; but this choice is not one that fixes the problem. The problem, rather, is the choice which our customers or potential customers make, over which we have no control.

13. It is a company’s duty to maximize returns to its shareholders. Making a profit is not wrong, and Google is entitled to design its search algorithms and web site as it wishes. None of the above is intended to imply that Google is doing wrong.

14. Despite (13) above, the combination of this concentration of power in a single business entity, the lack of transparency in its procedures, and the difficulty smaller businesses (in other words, almost everyone else) have in fixing issues, is something I find troubling.

15. It is also worth noting that the power of a dominant search engine goes beyond SEO (Search Engine Optimization). There is a long-standing debate over how easy it should be to find sites which offer illegal music downloads, for example. Another recent case I encountered showed how Google can make it hard to find a business in the real as well as the online world. I also note the influence of search engines on education, as the first destination of students and pupils looking for answers, and on human knowledge in general.

These issues are both complex and important. Should Google be regulated? Should all search engines be regulated? I do not know the answer, but believe that the question merits wider discussion. In this instance, it is not obvious to me that the free unregulated market will achieve the best outcome.

Google and the UK Citizens Advice Bureau – an uncomfortable alliance

I picked up a Guardian newspaper today and could not miss the full-page Google+ advertisement. Or was it? The advertisement stated that it was from the Citizens Advice Bureau in partnership with Google. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) is a well-respected (and genuinely useful) service which runs a network of offices in the UK where you can go for free advice for things like legal or financial problems. It is a charity funded partly by government grants.

What is it doing partnering with Google? Well, I presume it is because the theme is “how to be safer on the Internet” which is something that I am sure the CAB cares about. However looking at the advertisement it would be easy to conclude that the CAB is somehow promoting Google+, the social networking site that Google hopes will rival Facebook. Intriguing.

The advertisement says:

To find out more about how to manage your information online, pick up a booklet from your local Citizens Advice Bureau or go to google.co.uk/goodtoknow

I wanted to see this booklet, so I looked into the Holborn CAB in London.

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I have to say that the aforementioned booklet was not exactly strewn about. In fact, the woman on the desk wasn’t sure if they had any. She went and looked though, and came back with the web address. Perhaps I could go there? I said I was keen to see the booklet the CAB was handing out – did it exist? Eventually I was told that they did not have any, but that the head office in Pentonville Road might. So I went there.

The man at the desk was not sure, but went away for a moment, and came back with one in his hands.

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Page one says this:

We have partnered with Citizens Advice to provide tips and advice. You can get free, confidential and impartial help about everything from finances to staying safe online from your local bureau in person, on the phone or online. For in depth information on all of the topics in this booklet and more, visit the Good to Know website.

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I think this is a PR triumph for Google, but I reckon the CAB has been sold a pup. It is not that I have anything against Google; but I would go to Google for impartial advice about staying safe online in the same way that I would go to a ferry company for impartial advice on cheap flights.

There is little sign of impartiality in the booklet. Personally I would say that a booklet on “how to manage the information you share online” that does not mention Facebook is in chocolate teapot territory. This booklet achieves this though; in fact the only web site mentioned is … Google.

“Keep your Google Account extra safe,” it says. But how about not having a Google account? No account, no personal details to lose.

This is stealth advertising – except that I am not sure about the stealth.

A substantial portion of the booklet is devoted to explaining why Google having my data is really good for me. “How knowing you better makes your internet better,” it says.

There is no mention of the benefits of using an ad-blocker to avoid sending data to advertisers. Nor does it include advice on simply not putting data online at all, if it might embarrass you or compromise your safety.

The reason is that Google cannot possibly be impartial about managing online information. Google wants your data, as much of it as possible, in order to target advertising. It is as simple as that.

Which is why Google is an uncomfortable partner for the CAB. I think the CAB could do with some impartial advice.

The power of Google: how the Panda update hit Experts Exchange

Searching Google recently it struck me that I rarely see results from Experts Exchange. I used to see a lot of these, because I typically search on things like error messages or programming issues for which the site is a useful source.

The site is controversial, because it (kind-of) charges for access to its knowledgebase but does not pay its experts. I posted about this back in 2009. That said, the quality of its advice is often good, and most answers are available without payment if you scroll far enough down the page. You can also get free access as an expert if you answer a few queries successfully.

Experts Exchange has to some extent been replaced by the StackOverflow group of websites, which are nicer to use and free, but I have found that the chances of getting your obscure query answered can be higher on Experts Exchange, particularly for admin rather than programming queries (of course for admin I am comparing with ServerFault).

Still, I wanted to test my perception that I no longer see Experts Exchange results in Google. I had a look at the Alexa stats for the site.

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Wow! That vertical line is around April 2011, which is when Google rolled out its "High Quality Sites Algorithm". The site still ranks in the top 3000 in the world according to Alexa – 2787 at the time of writing – but according to the chart it lost around 50% of its visitors then, and has since declined further.

As noted above, the site is controversial, but I personally never minded seeing Experts Exchange results in my searches since the advice there is often good.

The bit that disturbs me though is simply the power Google has over what we read on the Internet. I appreciate the reasons, but it is not healthy for one corporation to have this level of influence, especially bearing in mind the black box nature of its workings.

Browser wars heat up as Firefox 4 arrives

Just one week after the final release of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9, and here comes another major browser, Mozilla Firefox 4.

What’s new in Firefox? Performance, for one thing. There is a new JavaScript engine called JägerMonkey which is more effective than the old TraceMonkey – though TraceMonkey is still there – and there is hardware-accelerated graphics on Windows Vista and Windows 7 using Direct2D, and on Windows and Mac Direct3D or OpenGL are used to speed page composition.

On the appearance side, Mozilla has streamlined the user interface with tabs above the address bar, sorry Awesome Bar, and reduced the number of buttons. By default there are no menus visible, and you are meant to use the Firefox button at top left:

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I was disconcerted not to find the Tools menu here and one of the first things I did was to show the menu bar, though it does spoil the new UI design.

Firefox is also coming to Android and Maemo devices, and a great feature called Sync will synchronize bookmarks, tabs, passwords and history across all the devices you use.

There is also a new privacy feature called Do not track. This is a way of telling websites that you do not wish to be tracked. Tracking is used by web advertisers to send ads based on your browsing history as seen by that advertiser. Since many websites have scripts served by the same ad agency, this can be considerable. The feature does not block tracking, but only requests not to be tracked. It is off by default and buried in Advanced options, so will probably not be very effective.

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Firefox is an excellent browser, with many more features than I have mentioned above. A few observations though.

The new features in Firefox 4 echo many of the few features in Internet Explorer 9, which in turn echoes some of the themes in Chrome. However on my system IE9 seems to be a little faster than Firefox 4, the user interface is more polished in my opinion, and the tracking protection in IE9 is more effective since it does actually block tracking.

Then again, there are Firefox add-ons that also block tracking; and in general Firefox seems to have the best range of available add-ons, which could well be the deciding factor for many users.

Firefox 4 still has a separate search box, and in principle I like this. I find it annoying that IE9 and Chrome intermingle searches and URLs in one box. I suspect though that I am in a minority of users. If you switch between browsers, you can find yourself typing searches in the Awesome Bar anyway, though habit, so I am guessing Mozilla will cave in and combine them eventually.

Mozilla is a non-profit organisation with a strong open source and community ethos and that also may be enough reason to use Firefox.

It does face intense competition now though, and it must be a concern that its income comes largely from:

search functionality included in our Firefox product through all major search partners including Google, Yahoo, Yandex, Amazon, Ebay and others.

which in practice is mostly from Google, which has a competing browser.

Personally I think Mozilla will struggle to maintain market share for Firefox; though version 4 is having a good launch complete with a delightful Twitter party

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and a pretty download stats counter which is currently on 2.75 million and climbing fast.

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Google favours big brands over diversity

Google has made a change to its search algorithm that means most of the results shown for a search may now come from a single domain. Previously, it would only show a couple of results from one domain, on the assumption that users would prefer to select from a diversity of results.

The example chosen by searchengineland is a good one. Search for Apple iPod and you get a page that is mostly links to Apple’s site.

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If you search for the single word ipod you get more diversity – odd, since only Apple manufacture the ipod so you could argue that the searches are the same. Some people use ipod as a generic name for MP3 player, but that doesn’t seem to be reflected; all the results still relate to Apple’s device.

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Personally I’d rather see diversity. I don’t see the need for this change, since the site summary with deep links works well when a particular domain closely matches the search term. You can see an example of this in the top result for the ipod search above. Note that it even has a link for “More results from apple.com”. What is the value of suppressing the results from other domains?

The overall impact is that big brands benefit, while smaller businesses and new entrants to markets suffer. It also makes independent comment that bit harder to find.

While to most of us changes like these are only of passing interest, to some they make the difference between a flourishing business and a dead one. Google has too much power.

Incidentally, I generally find Google significantly better than Bing, now its major competitor. However in this case Bing impresses, with categories such as reviews, prices, accessories, manuals and so on; and in the case of the Apple ipod search, a better balance between the official site and independents.

Oracle still foisting Google Toolbar on Java users

Oracle may be suing Google over its use of Java in Android; but the company is still happy to take the search giant’s cash in exchange for foisting the Google Toolbar on users who carelessly click Next when updating their Java installation on Windows. If they do, the Toolbar is installed by default.

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This is poor practice for several reasons. It is annoying and disrespectful to the user, particularly when the same dialog has been passed many times before, bad for performance, bad for security.

Sun at least had the excuse that it needed whatever income it could get.

I know certain other companies do this as well with their free runtimes – Adobe is one – and I like it just as little. However, as far as I can recall Adobe only adds foistware on a new install, not with semi-automatic updates.

A great day for Android at Google I/O; not convinced by Google TV

Yesterday’s Google I/O was remarkable for several reasons. The most significant was not a specific technical announcement, but rather the evidence for a successful Google-led alliance against Apple in the mobile device market (and perhaps also in home entertainment with Google TV). Apple has hardly put a foot wrong since Jobs rejoined the company in 1996 – well, aside from a few minor lapses like the iPod Hi-Fi. With steadily increasing sales for the iPhone, it was beginning to look as if Apple would do to the mobile phone market what it did to the market for portable MP3 players, including the all-important App Store.

After Google I/O 2010 that seems less likely. Google showed off the momentum behind Android – there are now over 100,000 Android activations daily, according to Vic Gundotra – and then gave a compelling demo of new features in Android 2.2, code-named Froyo, including:

  • New Dalvik just-in-time compiler with 2-5x speed improvement in CPU-bound code
  • Better Exchange support with account auto-discovery, calendar sync, Global Address List support, and device policy support
  • V8 JavaScript engine in Android browser, 2-3x speed improvement
  • Apps can backup data to the cloud, for instant restore on a replacement device
  • Ability to make Android phone a portable wi-fi hotspot for your Windows, Apple or Linux machine
  • Stream your home media library to your Android device
  • Cloud to device messaging
  • Crash reports with stacktrace uploaded for developers to review
  • Some great demos of voice input combined with Google search and maps

In some ways the details do not matter; what does matter is that Google persuaded the world that Android mobiles would be more than a match for iPhones, but without the Apple lock-in, lock-out, and censorship.

Support for Adobe Flash is almost more a political than a technical matter in this context. I cannot help wondering whether Microsoft is working on Silverlight for Android; it should be, but probably is not. The Mono team on the other hand is there already.

Apple now has a bit of a PR problem; and while I am sure it will ride it out successfully and impress us at WWDC next month, the fact that it has a PR problem at all is something of a novelty.

Next came Google TV, with which I was less impressed, and not only because the demos were shaky. I understand the thinking behind it. You could almost see the $ signs revolving when Google mentioned the $70 billion annual spend on TV advertising. Google TV adds an Android device and internet connection to your living room television set, bringing YouTube to the largest screen in the house, enabling web browsing, and opening up interesting opportunities such as running Android apps, combining TV and web search, and overlaying TV with social media interaction.

It sounds good; but while I am a firm believer in the Internet’s power to disrupt broadcasting – especially here in the UK where we have BBC iPlayer – I am not sure that injecting the Web into TV like this is such a big deal. In fact, games consoles do this already. Sony’s Howard Stringer was at Google I/O to support the announcement, which has his company’s participation, but a PS3 already offers BBC iPlayer, Adobe Flash 9, and a basic web browser. I use this from time to time and enjoy it, but a TV is not great for web browsing since you are sitting at a distance, and wireless keyboards are a nuisance kicking round the living room – we tried that for a while with Windows Media Center. Activities like online shopping or simply Tweeting are easier to do on other devices.

Maybe it is just waiting for the right implementation. If it does take off though, I will be interested to see what the broadcasters think of it. What if Google manages to serve contextual ads based on the content you are viewing? That would not please me if I had invested millions in creating that content, specifically in order to attract advertising.

It may be developers that make or break Google TV. Add a few compelling apps that work best in this context, and we will all want one.

Google flexes page rank muscles, hits Daily Express?

It’s been reported that the Daily Express newspaper is selling paid links, in other words links that look to Google’s web crawler like links from independent editorial, but in fact are paid for by advertisers.

The consequence of doing this, according to Google:

However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.

I then saw a report saying that Google has indeed penalised the Daily Express. I checked the page rank of the Daily Express home page here and found that it is indeed lower than could be expected.

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While it is difficult to say what the page rank should be, Alexa shows the Express site as among the top 15,000 worldwide and in the top 1000 in the UK, with over 4,000 incoming links.

Although the Daily Express is not to my taste, I have misgivings about this process. A significant proportion of web traffic comes via Google, and lower search rankings have a direct effect on traffic and therefore business. Exactly how Google determines search rankings is a commercial secret, even though the gist of how it works is well known. There is not much you can do if mistakes are made, other than to complain to Google and hope someone pays attention to you.

There is nothing illegal about selling paid links, and the article highlighted in the Express is marked as “Sponsored”. While it is right for Google not to count these links as genuine recommendations, I am less sure about whether there should be additional punishment for running them. It puts too much power to make and break other companies into the hands of Google.

Of course we don’t know if the low ranking is a result of the paid links or not; that is speculation. Nor do we know how closely the published page rank corresponds which how Google actually determines the order of search results. Looking at Alexa’s report, there’s no conclusive evidence of declining traffic, though Alexa’s figures are based on a relatively small sample.

Still, I get a ton of these paid link requests and this kind of story makes me glad that I always turn them down.

Google’s privacy campaign, and three ways in which Google gets your data

Google is campaigning to reassure us that its Chrome browser is, well, no worse at recording your every move on the web than any other browser.

Using Chrome doesn’t mean sharing more information with Google than using any other browser

says a spokesman in this video, part of a series on Google Chrome & Privacy.

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What then follows is links to four other videos describing the various ways in which Google Chrome records your web activity.

If you subtract the spin, the conclusion is that Google retrieves a large amount of data from you, especially if you stick with the default settings. Further, it is not possible as far as I know to use the browser without sending any data to your default search provider, most likely Google. The reason is the Omnibox, the combined address and search box. Here’s what Google’s Brian Rakowski says in the video on Google Chrome & Privacy – Browsers search and suggestions

For combined search and web address to work, input in the Omnibox will need to be sent to your search provider to return suggestions. If you have chosen Google as your search provider, only around 2% of the search input is logged and used to improve Google’s suggestion service. Rest assured that this data is anonymised as soon as possible within 24 hours, and you always have the option of disabling the suggest feature at any time.

However, even if you disable suggestions, what you type in the box still gets sent to your search provider if it is not a valid web address, in other words anything that is not a complete URL (though Chrome will infer the http:// prefix).

It is also worth noting that Google does not only get your data via browser features. Most web pages today are not served from a single source. They include scripts that serve data from other locations, which means that your browser requests it, which means that these other locations know your IP number, browser version and so on. Two of the most common sources for such scripts are Google AdSense (for advertising) and Google Analytics (for analysing web traffic).

Even if you contrive not to tell Google in advance where you are going, it will probably find out when you get there.

It is important to distinguish what Google can do from what it does do. Note the language in Rakowski’s explanation above. When he says input is sent to your search provider, he is describing the technology. When he says that data is anonymized as soon as possible, he is asking us to trust Google.

Note also that if you ask to send in auditors to verify that Google is successfully anonymising your data, it is likely that your request will be refused.

There are ways round all these things, but most of us have to accept that Google is getting more than enough data from us to create a detailed profile. Therefore the secondary question, of how trustworthy the company is, matters more than the first one, about how it gets the data.