Google manipulates its search results in a way that hurts both its competitors and its users, according to a new research paperfrom prominent law professor and Internet scholar, Tim Wu and funded by Google critic Yelp.
The study claims that when Google privileges its own content over the “organic” results its search algorithm picks, as in the case of restaurant reviews, it actually reduces “social welfare.”
To study this, the researchers set up a browser plug-in that mimicked Google’s organic search page without “OneBox,” the map and listings widget which foists Google’s own local listings on certain searches. They then put the actual top search results in OneBox’s place for half their test subjects. After analysing the behaviour of 2,690 subjects, they found users were 45% more likely to click on the organic search results than on Google’s promoted links.
These results go directly against Google’s party line, which is that it promotes its own content in order to provide better search results. The study admits this can be true in certain cases, such as when Google displays the time, or has a calculator pop up to help you do multiplication. But when users are clicking on the organic links 45% more, it’s hard to argue the promoted links are providing more benefit. And the paper makes a strong case that consumers prefer “competitive results.”
“The main surprising and shocking realisation is that Google is not presenting its best product,” Wu told Re/Code. “In fact, it’s presenting a version of the product that’s degraded and intentionally worse for consumers.”
The study was funded by consumer reviews website Yelp, which has filed a complaint about Google’s practices to Europan antitrust regulators.
Google is fighting anti-trust action in the European Union, stemming from allegations that it promotes its own services and products ahead of others in search results. Google has until August 17 to respond to the European charges. While Wu doesn’t explicitly say his findings show a legal breach, he thinks a case could be made that Google’s actions harmed consumers. “The door is open,” he said to Re/Code.
This isn’t the first time Yelp and Google have been at odds over search results. Last year, documents uncovered by TechCrunch revealed Yelp executives believed Google was siphoning off up to 20% of clicks from search traffic that should have been Yelp’s. The documents showed that Google was inserting links to its own products above Yelp’s, even when the original search results explicitly included the word “Yelp.” However these documents also admitted that Google’s practices overall haven’t hurt Yelp’s traffic.
But for Wu, it’s not as much about the raw traffic numbers as it is about the effect on the consumer. “It’s a legal exercise of monopoly if it hurts competitors while helping consumers, but if it hurts consumers while also hurting competitors, then there is no justification for the conduct,” he told Bloomberg.
We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will update if we hear back.