In 2011, Google objected to a story about Google Plus influencing search results.

By David Z. Morris
September 1, 2017

Google was accused this week of pushing scholar Barry Lynn out of the New America think tank it funds, in retaliation for Lynn supporting an EU antitrust fine against the search company. Now, a former Forbes writer claims Google used a different kind of influence to bury a potentially damaging story about practices similar to those targeted by the EU.

The episode, as recounted by Kashmir Hill at tech news site Gizmodo, occurred in 2011, when Google was in the midst of launching and promoting its Google Plus social network, and Hill was writing for Forbes. In a business meeting between Google and Forbes, Hill heard a Google rep say, in so many words, that search traffic would decline for publishers that did not add Google’s new “+1” social sharing button to their sites.

After confirming the substance of that message with Google’s press representatives, Hill wrote a post detailing the new search ranking parameter. Her report included insights into how user interactions with Plus could help provide more detailed user data to publishers, and help Google provide more relevant results to users linked to Plus. Hill’s report was largely positive, and described some of the potential benefits as “pretty cool.”

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But Google, according to Hill’s story yesterday, didn’t appreciate the attention to its strategy and pressured Forbes to remove the article. In part, Google objected to the use of material from an internal business meeting, for which some attendees—but not Hill herself—had signed nondisclosure agreements. Forbes ultimately did remove the story, though a syndicated version is still viewable here.

Hill also alleges the piece disappeared unusually quickly from Google’s own search results and cache, speculating that Google may have actively sought to eliminate the traces of a story it didn’t like. In a statement to Fortune, Google categorically denied that charge, saying that it had “nothing to do with removing the article from the cache.” Google further says it took issue with Hill’s story because it regarded the entire Google Plus meeting to be confidential, regardless of Hill’s specific status.

There was another factor that likely made Google nervous, though: At the time, the company was already under scrutiny from U.S. and European antitrust regulators. Hill didn’t even broach the subject in her 2011 report, but linking prominence in search results with sites adopting buttons for its new social network could have looked, as Wired put it at the time, “like Google is unfairly using its search engine might to boost its Facebook alternative.”

That sounds quite similar to how Google has privileged its own shopping tools in search results, the behavior that ultimately led to the European Union fine. Hill’s new report also comes amid a widening debate about the influence that powerful players from Facebook and Google to security service CloudFlare have over the flow of digital news and information.

We have contacted Google for any further response to Hill’s article.

 

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