Google has become the world’s universal search engine. It’s even become a verb synonymous to “look up”. To look something up on the web is to “Google it”. But like an artist too popular for his/her own good, Google has become an object of scrutiny when it uses its own popularity to further its own ends. For years many have speculated that Google manipulates search results in order to further its own interests. That search results are fixed where what should be on top gets moved to the bottom. Just because the company owns the search engine shouldn’t mean it can stick in one or two of its own content into its search results. According to some, it’s an unfair practice for which Google had been investigated before, but Columbia Law School professor and author Tim Wu, Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca and a data science team from Yelp say that the practice continues and is hurting users.
So what harm can it do if the company decides to throw in a couple of unsolicited results? Such a practice could deliver less useful results which damages productivity. For example, users who type the term orthodontics may just want information about the field, not a map and ten listings of nearby clinics. For users with small screen real-estate (tablets, smartphones, and laptops with lousy 16:9 screens) it can be discouraging or counter-productive having to scroll on their smartphones, tablets or netbooks. Google’s current practice is detailed in a paper written by Tim Wu (The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires) with help from Michael Luca and Yelp and was recently delivered at the Oxford University’s Antitrust Enforcement Symposium.
Here is a summary:
“By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to leverage its dominance in search to gain customers for this content. This yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results. To investigate, we implement a randomized controlled trial in which we vary the search results that users are shown comparing Google’s current policy of favorable treatment of Google content to results in which external content is displayed. We find that users are 45% more likely to engage with universal search results (i.e. prominently displayed map results on Google) when the results are organically determined. This suggests that by leveraging dominance in search to promote its internal content, Google is reducing social welfare leaving consumers with lower quality results and worse matches.”
One could easily see the difference using the above example. Users can check out the term ‘orthodontics’ on the Google search engine and compare it with results from other search engines like DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo displays more organic results than Google although both the top result features Wikipedia, there are more ads and recommendations on-screen in Google than DuckDuckGo. The paper also says that users are more likely to ignore the added Google content and explore the organic blue links which is what this author often does. This author also developed a muscle memory in calling in Google when searching for something but resort to other search engines when looking for more organic results.
“From this paper one thing should be abundantly clear… The easy and widely disseminated argument that Google’s universal search always serves users and merchants is demonstrably false. Instead, in the largest category of search (local intent-based), Google appears to be strategically deploying universal search in a way that degrades the product so as to slow and exclude challengers to its dominant search paradigm… The harm caused by such misdirection when it occurs, will vary, but is undeniable in the aggregate.”
Google argues that for marketable products and services, its Local OneBox, Plus Box and 10-Pack services actually help those who are actually out to purchase them. They are also helpful in localized searches for example, when looking for Chinese take-out or auto body repair. If and when possible, the top results will feature Wikipedia articles about the particular search term maintaining the search results’ usefulness.
Though the paper may have a point, the other side of the coin points to the paper being sponsored by and contributed to by Yelp, a competitor in business search and reviews. Yelp is also not without its share of scandals such as alleged advertisement purchasing extortion as well as manipulation and filtering of business reviews. Yelp was allegedly involved in coercing businesses to purchase advertisements in favor of filtering out negative reviews or increasing the amount of negative reviews to force business owners in purchasing ads.
With Google already in the crosshairs of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and European Union regulators for antitrust issues, the paper’s cry of Yelp may just open up a fresh can of worms for the search giant and force it to rethink its strategy.