Search Neutrality ≠ Net Neutrality

Original at Freedom to Tinker.

Sunday’s New York Times featured a provocative op-ed arguing in addition to regulating “net neutrality” the FCC should also effectuate “search neutrality” – requiring search providers rank results without consideration of business entities. The author heaps particular scorn upon Google for promoting its own context-relevant services (i.e. maps and weather) at the fore of search results. Others have already reviewed the proposal, leveled implementation critiques, and criticized the author’s gripes with his own site. My aim here is to rebut the piece’s core argument: the analogy of search neutrality to net neutrality. Clearly both are debates about the promotion of innovation and competition through a level playing field. But beyond this commonality the parallel breaks down.

Net neutrality advocates call for regulation because ISP discrimination could render innovative services either impossible to implement owing to traffic restrictions or too expensive to deploy owing to traffic pricing. Consumers cannot “vote with their dollars” for a nondiscriminatory ISP since most locales have few providers and the market is hard to break into. Violations of net neutrality, the argument goes, threaten to nip entire industries in the bud and rob the economy of growth.

Violations of search neutrality, on the other hand, at most increase marketing costs for an innovative or competitive offering. Consumers are more than clever enough to seek and use an alternative to a weaker Google offering (Yelp vs. Google restaurant reviews, anyone?). The author of the op-ed cites Google Maps’ dethroning of MapQuest as evidence of the power of search non-neutrality; on the contrary, I would contend users flocked to Google’s service because it was, well, better. If Google Maps featured MapQuest’s clunky interface and vice versa, would you use it? A glance at historical map site statistics empirically rebuts the author’s claim. The mid-May 2007 introduction of Google’s context-relevant (“universal”) search does not appear correlated with any irregular shift in map site traffic.

Moreover, unlike with net neutrality search consumers stand ready to “vote with their [ad] dollars.” Should Google consistently favor its own services to the detriment of search result quality, consumers can effortlessly shift to any of its numerous competitors. It is no coincidence Google sinks enormous manpower into improving result quality.

There may also be a benefit to the increase in marketing costs from existing violations of search neutrality, like Google’s map and weather offerings. If a service would have to be extensively marketed to compete with Google’s promoted offering – say, a current weather site vs. searching for “Stanford weather” – the market is sending a signal that consumers don’t care about the marginal quality of the product, and the non-Google provider should quit the market.

There is merit to the observation that violations of search neutrality are, on the margin, slightly anti-competitive. But this issue is dwarfed by the potential economy-scale implications of net neutrality. The FCC should not deviate in its rulemaking.