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Google denies 'freeze' on manual search controls

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Google search bigwig Matt Cutts and the web giant's public policy team have confirmed that Google still uses manual controls as well as its famous algorithms to determine search results, denying a blog post that said otherwise.

On Thursday evening, a blog post on Launch.is – a website for a new conference founded by mega-blogger and serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis – claimed that as Google faces various antitrust probes, the company has "frozen" all manual search interventions. The post was not signed, but a link to the post was later tweeted by Calacanis. "Government Investigations Have Frozen Google's Manual Search Results," the tweet read.

When we contacted Google about the post, a company spokeswoman flatly denied its contents. "This report is completely unfounded and false, and nothing has changed in our approach," her statement read. "Computer algorithms are the most scalable way to deliver relevant results. However, manual controls are necessary to improve the user experience in very limited cases, such as security concerns, legal issues and spam."

At around the same time, Matt Cutts – famously the head of Google's webspam team – took to Twitter to deny the story. Previously, he had left a denial on the Launch post itself. "@Jason That's false. I left a comment on the blog post to debunk the headline and story." What's more, the official Twitter account for the Google Public Policy team posted a denial, also in response to Calacanis's original tweet. "@Jason This report is completely unfounded and false, and nothing has changed in our approach."

We have no doubt that the Launch post is false, despite its claims that "multiple sources" supported its assertions. But Google's approach has changed in light of the ongoing antitrust investigations from the EU, the Texas attorney general, and possibly the US Federal Trade Commission: The company now freely acknowledges that manual controls are an essential part of its search engine. Google has at least taken a few baby steps towards since that day in February 2010 when the EU investigation was first revealed and its chief European competition counsel told reporters: "We don’t whitelist or blacklist anyone.”

Since then, Matt Cutts has publicly acknowledged that the company uses whitelists as well as manual demotions. If these demotions aren't blacklists, they're very similar to blacklists. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing antitrust investigations, they have at least encouraged Google to be (slightly) more straightforward in describing its black box of a search engine.

It also wouldn't surprise us if, amidst antitrust probes, Google senior management has come down hard on the company's search quality team, putting additional checks on manual interventions. In essence, regulators are investigating whether the company uses it web search monopoly to unfairly discriminate competitors in other, vertical search markets, and the use of manual controls will certainly be scrutinized.

But the Lauch post makes little sense. You can't run a web search without manual controls. Of course, the post may have been designed to highlight this fact, to stir up more discussion around those antitrust probes and Google into saying: "Yes, we do manual interventions." And that's exactly what happened. ®

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