Google responds to search ranking suit

In a case that underscores the increasing importance search rankings have on business, Google Technologies Inc. is fighting to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that it purposely devalued the search rankings of online advertising network Search King Inc.

According to documents filed Dec. 30 with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Google is asking the court to deny a request for a preliminary injunction from Oklahoma-based Search King, which sued the search giant last October claiming that it unfairly bumped the rankings of its Web sites, leading to financial losses.

In its response, Google says that Search King's motion "contains only bare and conclusory allegations." Furthermore, Google contended that its rankings are simply the company's "view or opinion of the importance of a Web page" and are therefore protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

In its suit, Search King alleged that Google "arbitrarily and purposefully" devalued its rankings when it discovered that the company's advertising sales branch PR Ad Network was placing text ads on Web sites with a high "PageRank" from Google, therefore making it one of the few competitors to Google's advertising service.

According to a description on Google's Web site, the company's PageRank system calculates search results based on how many sites link to a particular site, with more "important" linking sites adding more weight to the ranking. Because Google is one of the largest and most highly trafficked search sites on the Web, Search King alleges that the way in which it delivers results can significantly affect the amount of traffic received by a Web site.

In an interview this week, Search King and PR Ad Network President Robert Massa expressed dismay at Google's response.

"On their Web site they say that PageRank is a mathematical algorithm. Now they say that it is free speech. This changes everything," Massa said.

According to Massa, the devalued rankings of his Web sites are not the real issue. The issue, he said, is accountability.

"I just want them to rank my page like they rank everyone else ... and if it's a matter of opinion, they should have a disclaimer saying so," he said.

In fact, Search King's PageRank rating was restored in November, but the company decided to follow through with the suit, saying it was a matter of principle.

A representative from Mountain View, California-based Google declined to comment on the case this week beyond the response filed with the court.

In the response, however, Google said that it lowered Search King's rankings because the company "engaged in behavior that would lower the quality of Google's search results and that was designed to manipulate the integrity of those search results."

Google said that it should have come as no surprise that it lowered Search King's rankings, given that the ad company posted an open letter to Google on its site saying that "the world seems convinced that Google will not like the fact that I am selling text ads with their price based on [PageRank.]."

While Google is fighting the motion for a preliminary injunction against it, Massa says he will continue to fight the search giant on principle.

"I didn't want to have to be the guy who hires lawyers and goes to court, but I guess I am," he said.

Search King is seeking damages in excess of US$75,000 as well as punitive damages and attorneys' fees.

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