Google Endorses Speed-based Prioritization – What About Net Neutrality?

by on June 19, 2008 · 24 comments

Google has begun including the “load time factor” into the quality score for ads on its AdWords program.  This means that “Keywords with landing pages that load slowly may get lower Quality Scores (and thus higher minimum bids).  Conversely, keywords with landing pages that load very quickly may get higher Quality Scores and lower minimum bids.”

Google provides two reasons for the change:  “First, users have the best experience when they don’t have to wait a long time for landing pages to load.  Interstitial pages, multiple redirects, excessively slow servers, and other things that can increase load times only keep users from getting what they want: information about your business.  Second, users are more likely to abandon landing pages that load slowly, which can hurt your conversion rate [and thus lower profits for both the advertiser].”

One could easily imagine that some might complain that Google is “discriminating” against slower-to-load pages, and even hypothesize that this would introduce a systemic bias towards sites that can afford faster server throughput.  True, this change makes the AdWords system non-“neutral” in ways that will benefit some advertisers over others.

But so what?  Google is simply engaging in smart management of their network:  Giving priority to ads that load faster introduces a strong incentive for all advertisers to speed up their pages in any manner possible.  This small change in pricing structure could have broader effects on the efficiency of Internet browsing for all users–at least in terms of building home pages that load faster–particularly if other advertising platforms follow suit.  Google explains that this change is merely an application of one of the “Ten things Google has found to be true”:

3. Fast is better than slow.

Google believes in instant gratification.  You want answers and you want them right now. Who are we to argue? Google may be the only company in the world whose stated goal is to have users leave its website as quickly as possible.  By fanatically obsessing on shaving every excess bit and byte from our pages and increasing the efficiency of our serving environment, Google has broken its own speed records time and again.  Others assumed large servers were the fastest way to handle massive amounts of data.  Google found networked PCs to be faster.  Where others accepted apparent speed limits imposed by search algorithms, Google wrote new algorithms that proved there were no limits.  And Google continues to work on making it all go even faster.

Amen!  Who could possibly disagree?

But if Google’s prioritization of its AdSense network is a good thing, should we not encourage other network operators to look for analogous ways to increase the operational efficiency of their networks through prioritization?  For example, how else could Gogo ensure the functionality of soon-to-be launched in-flight wireless boadband service if it could not prioritize low-bandwidth activities like Web surfing and email over high-bandwidth activities like streaming video?   As the DOJ noted in its September 2007 filing opposing the adoption of “net neutrality” mandates by the FCC, “The prioritization of certain content and content providers (such as streaming video and other latency-sensitive content), offering of premium services and different levels of quality of service, preferential treatment of certain content, and vertical integration–in many instances actually may be procompetitive.”

Of course, one might respond that Google’s form of prioritization is “good” and that other forms of prioritization are “bad.”  But what about Gogo’s?  Indeed, by what measure should such assessments be made and who is to make them?

Ultimately, the best answer is that consumers should have the freedom to choose among networks and services at the various layers of the Internet.  The key to such competition is, of course, transparency:  making it clear to users how traffic or services are being prioritized and why.  As I’ve discussed, Google’s recent announcement that it will offer users free tools to monitor ISP traffic management is both a means of increasing that transparency and a recognition that increased transparency will allow users and watchdogs to ensure that the “right” kind of prioritization is taking place while also facilitating the enforcement of user terms of use.

In this respect, Google is leading by example:  Google has explained very clearly what they’re doing and why, starting with their initial announcement in May that landing page load time would soon be incorporated into AdWords Quality Scores and their subsequent announcement that Google’s Keyword Analysis tools would allow each advertiser to monitor Google’s calculation of its landing page load time.  The adoption of such transparency as an industry best practice for explaining prioritization combined with the availability of user monitoring tools like those being developed by Google would provide a powerful alternative to government “Net Neutrality” mandates–without depriving users of the freedom to choose prioritization.

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