Killing success

The EU opens antitrust investigation into Google. And so it begins.

How did Google achieve its dominance in the search engine market? This article in Wired explains: How Google’s algorithm rules the web. It’s a fascinating article detailing how every day the engineers tweak and twist the algorithm, constantly improving it to make it more responsive to users’ requests. Here’s a tiny snippet that illustrates the difficulty of what they’re working with:

Take, for instance, the way Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms. “We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theoriesabout how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

So they are guilty not of oppressing their competitors but only of providing the best product. Sadly for the future of competitive markets, this is illegal under our antitrust laws, should the government wish to declare it so.

In law school we studied the case U.S. v. Alcoa and I was thunderstruck by this passage from Judge Learned Hand:

Nothing compelled [ALCOA] to keep doubling and redoubling its capacity before others entered the field. It insists that it never excluded competitors; but we can think of no more effective exclusion than progressively to embrace each new opportunity as it opened, and to face every newcomer with new capacity already geared into a great organization, having the advantage of experience, trade connections, and the elite of personnel.

No one else in my class seemed to think that objectionable. I was horrified and remain so today.


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4 responses to “Killing success

  1. ld

    I don’t understand google’s dominance in search engines. produces better results that are easier to use because it includes a breakdown by topic in the left hand column.

    See the results for:

    ” For What It’s Worth” fountain

  2. Huh

    We must not have shared that class. Cause I agreed then and now that the courts views on comptetion through the second half of the 20th century was skewed way left.
    Nuke the whales.

  3. pulled up in OG

    Maybe the prosecutor Googled “Why is Italy shaped like a boot?”

    Google bosses convicted in Italy

  4. pulled up in OG

    CF’s been stress testing Google Image algorithms for ages.