Suit over Google PageRank faces hard fight

A company suing Google over low page rankings has been given a chance to bolster its case, but the attempt to take on the search giant on behalf of all sites left behind appears to be an uphill battle.

Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Thursday granted Google's motion to dismiss a suit by KinderStart.com, but only pending amendments to the complaint by KinderStart. The amended complaint is scheduled to be heard Sept. 29 in San Jose, California.

"We are pleased that Judge Fogel dismissed all of KinderStart's claims," Google said in a statement attributed to Michael Kwun, its senior litigation counsel.

KinderStart, in Norwalk, California, operates a Web portal with links and a search box for information about raising young children. The company claims its site received a "zero" in Google's PageRank system, which is the basis of all of Google's Web search tools. As a result, it didn't show up in search results and KinderStart's business suffered, according to a complaint filed in April.

Among the company's charges against Google are defamation, unfair competition, breach of contract and violating KinderStart's free speech rights. KinderStart is also seeking class-action status for the suit to win damages for other sites that have had low rankings or been blocked.

The judge's ruling Thursday indicated KinderStart's best shot for getting the case to trial may be its defamation charge. If it can establish that Google is manually changing the rankings of Web pages while telling the public that PageRank is an objective mathematical system, KinderStart may have a defamation case, he said.

KinderStart has continued investigating since it filed the complaint, according to Gregory Yu of Global Law Group in San Mateo, California, the company's lawyer.

"We've been acquiring and collecting a lot more information" about how Google does its page rankings, Yu said.

On its Web site, Google describes PageRank as a system developed by its founders and used in conjunction with text-matching techniques to deliver useful search results.

"A Google search is an easy, honest and objective way to find high-quality websites with information relevant to your search," Google says on one page.

This has been Google's key differentiator since it emerged in the 1990s, according to Lauren Gelman, associate director of the Center for the Internet and Society. Whereas a portal such as Yahoo had employees give their own view, compiling lists of sites about certain topics, Google ranked pages based on how many related sites linked to them.

However, at a June 30 hearing on the case, Google said the rankings aren't liable to a defamation claim because they are opinions. The average Google visitor sees them as opinions, they said.

In fact, the system can't be totally objective, according to Gelman.

"It's people who build the algorithm, and they do that based on their understanding of what people mean when they say (for example) 'sneaker'," Gelman said. In addition, Google has intervened when companies have tried to manipulate the PageRank system, she said.

Despite the apparent discrepancy, KinderStart's claim is a long shot, in her view.

"It was more the judge noting that there's a difference between their public statements and what was stated in the courtroom, but there's a big leap from that to an actual, actionable defamation claim," Gelman said. She doesn't think the case will ever go to trial.

That still leaves Google's ostensibly objective results exposed publicly as opinions, Gelman said, but she thinks most users won't care.

"What matters is whether, when you search for something, you get the results you want," Gelman said.

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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