Google “hard-codes” its own links to appear at the top of its algorithmic search results, Harvard analyst Ben Edelman reports in a new study.
People have long suspected that Google favours its own sites and content over third-parties, and if Edeleman’s conclusions hold, they will cause quite the scandal.
Edelman discovered that Google promotes its Finance and Health service above third-party content.
He figured this out by adding commas to search terms and noting how the results changed.
For example, he searched for “acne” and a Google Health link appeared at the top of the results page. Then he searched for “acne,” and all of the same results appeared – except for the Google Health link.
The trick works for stock symbols such as “CSCO” and “CSCO,” too.
Here’s a screenshot of one test:
So, why coud this be a scandal? Because getting a top link on a Google search page means A LOT more traffic then getting the second link, says Edelmen. The first link gets 34% of all clicks. The second gets just 17%.
The findings raise anti-trust concerns over Google for Edelman. He writes:
By directing users to Google services, Google can make its offerings take off in a broad class of services — be it health, finance, maps, video, travel, or otherwise. Any Google business that needs “algorithmic” traffic can get it, free, in huge quantity. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs recognise and anticipate that Google may bury their results as it favours its own services — blunting the incentive to build a business that competes with Google or competes with a service Google might plausibly develop. With Google already putting its Health and Finance sites first, even when user consensus is that other sites are preferable in these categories, it’s easy to envision a future where user preferences and genuine excellence are less important than Google’s rote power.
Google is currently getting lots of anti-trust heat over its acquisition of airfare search engine ITA. On that issue, Edelman writes:
I am struck by similarities between the favoured treatment Google gives its own services and the favoured treatment airlines previously gave their own flights in customer reservation systems (CRS’s) they respectively owned. For example, when travel agents searched for flights through Apollo, a CRS then owned by United Airlines, United flights would come up first — even if other carriers offered lower prices or nonstop service. The Department of Justice intervened, culminating in the rules prohibiting any CRS owned by an airline from ordering listings “us[ing] any factors directly or indirectly relating to carrier identity” (14 CFR 255). The same principle applies here: Google ought not rank results by any metric that distinctively favours Google.
I credit that it is less than straightforward to adapt CRS rules to search engines. CRS’s sort a limited number of flights along a defined set of criteria (e.g. departure time, arrival time, total travel time, number of connections, price). In contrast, search engines must analyse a startling volume of web pages with arbitrarily many attributes. Still, the same principles hold true: A firm ought not use dominance in one area (CRS or web search) to suppress competition in unrelated fields (flights or independent web services). CRS rules continue to embody that principle, and it’s time to insist on similar evenhandedness in online search.