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Senate bill seeks to compel tech giants to offer ‘unfiltered’ versions of their content

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There’s a new bill circulating in the Senate that would require large internet companies to disclose that their results are using “opaque algorithms” and offer consumers an option to see non-personalized search results or content, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) first reported. It’s called “The Filter Bubble Transparency Act.”

The term Filter Bubble was coined by activist and co-founder of Upworthy Eli Pariser to describe the socially destructive impact of showing fragmented and highly personalized content to internet users.

Bi-partisan support. The main sponsor of the bill is Republican Senator John Thune but it has bi-partisan support. He stated in an interview that the bill was designed to improve “transparency,” “choice” and “control” for consumers. Here’s the essence of what the bill (.pdf) requires platforms to do:

[The platform] provides notice to users of the platform that the platform uses an opaque algorithm that makes inferences based on user specific data to select the content the user sees. Such notice shall be presented in a clear, conspicuous manner on the platform whenever the user interacts with an opaque algorithm for the first time, and may be a one-time notice that can be dismissed by the user.

[The platform] makes available a version of the platform that uses an input-transparent algorithm and enables users to easily switch between the version of the platform that uses an opaque algorithm and the version of the platform that uses the input-transparent algorithm by selecting a prominently placed icon, which shall be displayed wherever the user interacts with an opaque algorithm.

Limited impact on Google results. At a time when “personalization” is top of mind for most marketers and technology companies, the proposed law seeks to strip away any personalization being utilized by algorithms. And while there is a widely held belief that Google heavily personalizes results, the company has previously said it does not, with the exception of location and some “immediate context from a prior search.”

As a practical matter then, it would have a limited impact on Google. It would have potentially a much greater impact on companies such as Facebook, YouTube (Google) and potentially even Amazon. But it would also affect any app or website using an algorithm that takes personal data or context into account.

Broad application to content sites, social networks. The bill would apply to “any public-facing website, internet application, or mobile application, including a social network site, video sharing service, search engine, or content aggregation service.”

It represents a bi-partisan expression of frustration with Google and Facebook in particular and an attempt to assert some degree of control over how they present content. Republicans believe that “conservative voices” are being “filtered out” by big internet platforms, which they see as biased. Democrats believe platforms like Facebook are manipulated by bad actors and partly responsible for intensifying polarization of the electorate.

The proposed law would not affect companies that have fewer than 500 employees, less than $50 million in revenue or audiences of less than one million users.

Algorithms held to be ‘protected speech.’ The bill does not appear to require companies to disclose the specific inputs into their algorithms, just that they’re using algorithms. Previously, U.S. courts have ruled, in Search King, Inc. v. Google Technology, Inc. (2003) and Langdon v. Google, Inc. (2007), that “search results” are protected editorial speech. Presumably this would equally apply to Facebook’s News Feed or YouTube results and content recommendations. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the specific question of whether search results are protected speech under the First Amendment.

Assuming passage of some version of the bill, it’s not clear whether the First Amendment might be used to challenge its Constitutionality. The WSJ also speculates that the bill’s provisions could ultimately be folded into a broader Congressional digital privacy legislation. If some version of the bill is ultimately passed the Federal Trade Commission would be in charge of enforcement.

Why we should care. Congress is determined to regulate big tech companies, which have generated considerable frustration and concern on Capitol Hill. There’s enough bi-partisan ire to all but ensure that some legislation will pass. The question is wisdom and sophistication of that effort.

Even if the Filter Bubble Act were to pass as a piece of stand-alone legislation, which is far from certain, it’s not clear that people would care or take advantage of it. It’s likely that most people would use the “default” version of results or content and not click over to the unfiltered version. There’s already plenty of behavioral evidence (see GDPR consent banners and ad choices) that would be the case.


About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He previously held leadership roles at LSA, The Kelsey Group and TechTV. Follow him Twitter or find him on LinkedIn.



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See the ‘top signals’ informing your Google Ads bidding strategies

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Google’s smart bidding strategies use a host of signals to inform bids with each auction. Now, Google is starting to show which signals are driving performance to optimize bids for people more or less likely to convert.

Top signals. The signals shown might include device type, location, day of week, time of day, keywords, remarketing and Customer Match lists and potentially some other signals. You might also see combinations of signals such as time and keyword. Signals in red are less likely to convert in that strategy, while signals in green are more likely to convert.

(Click to enlarge.) Top signals for portfolio bidding strategies now show in Google Ads.

Where to see top signals reporting. The top signals will show in the bid strategy report. Keep in mind, that report is only available for portfolio bid strategies. The bid strategy report is located from Tools > Shared Library > Bid Strategies. Then select a portfolio strategy.

Google said it will show for Target CPA and Maximize conversions on Search, but you may be able to see top signals for other portfolio strategies. The example above is just for eCPC, in fact.

Why we care. Understanding which contextual signals have particular influence on your automated bidding can give you insights into your target customers and potentially inform your strategy. For example, if you see a keyword being “down signaled,” it may just be a poor match for that particular bid strategy, or perhaps there are ad or landing page optimizations you could make to improve its likelihood to convert.

You might also see trends that can inform other marketing efforts such as email send times. The screenshot above, for example, shows weekends are a strong signal. That could be a good time to test email flights rather than on weekdays.

More about pay-per-click advertising


About The Author

Ginny Marvin is Third Door Media’s Editor-in-Chief, running the day to day editorial operations across all publications and overseeing paid media coverage. Ginny Marvin writes about paid digital advertising and analytics news and trends for Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and MarTech Today. With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Ginny has held both in-house and agency management positions. She can be found on Twitter as @ginnymarvin.



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Google’s ‘Duplex on the web’ enables the Assistant to buy movie tickets for you

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Google is making it possible to use the Assistant (via Duplex) to buy movie tickets online. Back in May at Google I/O, the company announced that it was expanding the AI-powered Duplex beyond restaurant reservations to booking rental cars and buying movie tickets.

Duplex on the web. Called “Duplex on the web,” users will be able to use the Google Assistant for new reservations and purchase categories. Movies is the latest example.

As shown below, Android users in the U.S. or U.K. can ask the Assistant for movie showtimes or search movies in the Google app. The Assistant will then lead searchers through a “buy tickets” process that involves theater selection, movie times and, if available, seat selection. A saved payment card needs to be in Chrome to work in this case.

Expanding to many more categories. It’s not clear that users will prefer this process to manually booking tickets. However, it illustrates how Google is bringing the sophistication of its Duplex technology to the broader mobile internet.

It’s also not clear how much back end integration needs to be done by publishers to enable this; I suspect not that much. Regardless, I’m sure Google has a roadmap that extends to many other categories where online scheduling, reservations and basic transactions are involved.

Rand Fishkin has been speaking, including at SMX East, about how Google has evolved from “everyone’s search engine to everyone’s competitor” and the SEO implications of this. My view is a bit different.

Why we should care. Google has now talked repeatedly about “helping users get things done in search and with the Google Assistant. This is about making search more transactional and owning the transaction. Google is doing this in shopping and across the board in local (e.g., food ordering).

Google is trying to remove friction and compress the process between search and a sale. It’s handing that process off much less and less to third parties and site owners. This helps Google 1) improve the consumer experience, 2) keep users within its system, 3) create a closed loop for analytics and 4) generate fees or revenue from commerce, which has implications for smart speakers.

If these capabilities (i.e., Duplex on the web) take off, publishers and brands will need to be partnered or integrated with Google actions/services or risk losing the transaction to a competitor. It will also mean that Google owns the customer.


About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes about the connections between digital and offline commerce. He previously held leadership roles at LSA, The Kelsey Group and TechTV. Follow him Twitter or find him on LinkedIn.



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Google Search Console adds Product results filters to performance report

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Google announced it has added new filters to the performance report within Google Search Console to show you how well your product results are doing in search. Google now captures and displays click and impression data when rich results display based on your use of product rich results markup.

The report. Find this data under the Performance report by clicking on “search appearance” and then on “product results.” You’ll see clicks and impressions and can further segment by device, geography and queries.

What it looks like. Here is a screen shot of the report:

What is a product rich result? Below is a screenshot of what a product rich result looks like, but you can learn more about this in this developer document. Product rich results typically show product ratings, price, availability and some description information. Note that product rich results are not new, just the report in Search Console.

An example of a product rich result in Google search results.

Why we care. The more data the better for SEOs and publishers, and this gives us more granular data on the impact of us adding product rich result markup to our pages. Google said this will show you how much traffic comes from experiences with rich data like price and availability and how does shopping traffic change over time, and the shopping search queries your website shows.


About The Author

Barry Schwartz is Search Engine Land’s News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on SEM topics.



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