Academic and regulatory debates about Google are dominated by two opposing theories of what search engines are and how law should treat them. Some describe search engines as passive, neutral conduits for websites’ speech; others describe them as active, opinionated editors: speakers in their own right. The conduit and editor theories give dramatically different policy prescriptions in areas ranging from antitrust to copyright. But they both systematically discount search users’ agency, regarding users merely as passive audiences.
A better theory is that search engines are not primarily conduits or editors, but advisors. They help users achieve their diverse and individualized information goals by sorting through the unimaginable scale and chaos of the Internet. Search users are active listeners, affirmatively seeking out the speech they wish to receive. Search engine law can help them by ensuring two things: access to high-quality search engines, and loyalty from those search engines.
The advisor theory yields fresh insights into long-running disputes about Google. It suggests, for example, a new approach to deciding when Google should be liable for giving a website the “wrong” ranking. Users’ goals are too subjective for there to be an absolute standard of correct and incorrect rankings; different search engines necessarily assess relevance differently. But users are also entitled to complain when a search engine deliberately misleads them about its own relevance assessments. The result is a sensible, workable compromise between the conduit and editor theories.