The Haggler: A Gmail Rival Sent to Siberia by a Mysterious Google Glitch




Christoph Hitz

Certain institutions in the world are so powerful and popular that we are just lucky that they are a force for good. Like Oprah. If she decided one day that she would like to try out villainy, we would all be in a lot of trouble.

Then there’s Google. It’s a company that many consumers rely on and love. It is also a company that has an immense impact on online commerce, in the United States as well as in many other countries where its search engine dominates. Show up high in a Google search and business is good. Vanish and business dries up.

Given that Google offers products that sometimes compete with those of other companies — internet browsers and online shopping services, to name just two — there is the risk that the mysterious algorithm that determines search results will favor the company that created and controls that algorithm. That’s why European regulators have charged Google with antitrust violations.

But these charges tend to focus on a kind of general harm to the market, often expressed as an anxiety that competition could be stifled. Examples of specific companies that have been harmed by Google, in a material way, are rare. But in this episode, we meet a company that thinks it might fit that description.

Q. The email service that I use, ProtonMail, recently wrote a blog post on its company site about how Google nearly put it out of business. You’ve written about Google before, and I thought you might be interested.

Is this an example of the search giant exploiting its market power?

Peter Smith

A. The blog post in question, titled “Search Risk — How Google Almost Killed ProtonMail,” tells a fascinating story. ProtonMail is based in Geneva and offers encrypted email, a product that puts it in competition with Gmail from Google. ProtonMail started in 2014, and by the next summer it had half a million users. In searches for “encrypted email” and “secure email” ProtonMail had been turning up on the first or second page in its first year in business. Not bad.

In October 2015, though, the company was turning up many pages deep into a search, which is tantamount to disappearing. ProtonMail consulted search engine optimization experts and none could explain why. If a company tries to snooker Google with what are known as “black hat” search tricks, Google will sometimes retaliate. ProtonMail says it was staying on the right side of Google’s many rules.

The company was still doing well on other search engines, like Bing and Yahoo.

The company tried twice to contact Google, without success. It wrote to a regional Google president in charge of strategic relationships. Nothing. In August, the company privately contacted Matt Cutts, then the head of Google’s web spam team, on Twitter.

“We know Google is intentionally hiding ProtonMail from search results,” the company wrote. “Interested in talking before our data goes public?”

Mr. Cutts wrote back the same day, sounding responsive. A few days passed. ProtonMail nudged on Aug. 9, and by Aug. 11 ProtonMail tweeted to Mr. Cutts that “the problem seems to be mostly fixed now.”

Currently, ProtonMail is ranked No. 1 in searches for both “encrypted email” and “secure email.”

But the damage incurred during ProtonMail’s months in the internet’s version of timeout was huge. “Google directly caused ProtonMail’s growth rate worldwide to be reduced by 25 percent for over 10 months,” the company wrote in its blog post. The company went from covering its monthly expenses to drawing on its emergency reserve fund.

So what caused this near-death experience? The closest that Google ever came to an explanation was to write that it “fixed something,” according to Andy Yen, a ProtonMail co-founder. That’s pretty vague.

The Haggler wrote to Google seeking illumination. A few days later, a company spokeswoman, Kara Berman, responded:

“While we understand that situations like this may raise questions, we typically don’t comment on how specific algorithms impact specific websites. We’re continually refining these algorithms and appreciate hearing from users and webmasters. While in many cases search ranking changes reflect algorithmic criteria working as intended, in some cases we’re able to identify unique features that lead to varied results. We’re sorry that it took so look to connect in this case and are glad the issue is resolved.”

Google has long erred on the side of opacity when discussing algorithm issues because, as it often says, the more that is known about the algorithm, the easier it will be for bad actors to game it. Fair enough. It is also worth noting that while ProtonMail did a lot to get Google’s attention, it did not use the path that Google recommends — a post to the company’s webmasters, who can be reached through a number of links collected on a Google webmasters page.

When asked why he had not tried that route, Mr. Yen responded that friends in the S.E.O. world said the chances of getting a response via that channel were not good.

It seems highly unlikely to the Haggler that Google set out to sabotage ProtonMail. But this episode is a reminder of a conflict of interest at Google’s core. It is like a football team that gets to write the rules, own all the equipment and control the referees.

No opposing franchise in its right mind would compete on those terms, but Google’s popularity and its singular role in online commerce mean that rivals don’t have a choice. They just have to hope that Google can resist the never-ending temptation to place profits over fairness. And that whenever the company needs to “fix something,” it does so lickety-split.

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