Google caught with its pants down

Google has been caught with its trousers down, as revealing research from Columbia Law School and Harvard Business School exposed the company’s prioritisation of its own content over that of its competitors in search results.

Some, like the European Commission, who have been searching for a killer blow against Google’s anti-competitive foibles, will be rubbing their hands at this potent new ammunition against the search engine giant.

Michael Luca, Tim Wu and the Yelp Data Science Team’s study is based on ‘local intent’ searches (specialised searches relevant to particular areas – the example of paediatricians in Toronto is given), Google’s largest single search category. This is explained:

“Google presents users with local search results that are a mixture of its organic results along with a user interface object known as the “Local OneBox.” The OneBox typically includes a list of seven business pins populated by exclusively querying Google’s proprietary local product, Google+ Local…”

For consumers and businesses, this “degrading of search” has various consequences. These include “welfare loss” (consumers short on time won’t find what they are searching for), “search-advertising monopoly maintenance” (Google excludes its competitors at the expense of consumers), “Innovation harms” (incentives to invest in new techniques falter), and finally damage to “speech and self-expression” (Google’s ability to decide who is or isn’t heard “can amount to censorship”).

The study draws some withering conclusions. Click-surveys of 2,690 users reveal that whereas 32% of users would click on the local intent results actually provided, 47% click on the same results when they use Google’s “organic” merit-based formula instead. As Google uses its almighty digital power to bash us across the face with its own content, we suffer the consequences. Or, as the team from Harvard and Columbia put it, “when Google knowingly degrades its search to harm its competitors, the impact can be felt by both sides of the market – by the consumers who don’t get the results (and products) they value most highly, and the merchants who might otherwise have sold to them.”

Ultimately, all the reader can do is shake their head in dismay at Google’s devious doings. The “lower quality results” offered by Google even lead to the damning accusation that it is “reducing social welfare”. But is this fair? From an academic standpoint Google’s actions might be “degrading the product”, but Google is a business – it isn’t obligated to worry about social costs, and, if it can boost its services by tweaking search results, it will.

Furthermore, for all Google’s insidiousness, online search engines are the public’s most trusted news source. In the UK in 2013, Google was even ranked alongside the Church of England for trustworthiness. Suspicion towards Google among the paper’s writers certainly doesn’t mirror popular opinion, and is unlikely to shake Google’s position as the world’s top website.

The plot thickens when the role of Yelp, a major Google competitor for local intent searches, is considered. Leaving aside Michael Luca and Tim Wu (who were both paid for their time by Yelp), the “Yelp Data Science Team” seems like a peculiar choice for an investigation into search engine bias. Describing Google travel and Google+ Local as “simple clones” of Kayak and Yelp, which “have not proved as popular or successful with users as the originals”, is certainly a harsh line for impartial investigators to take.

Luca, Wu and co.’s results are interesting, and will spark debate on Google’s use of its digital dominance. The prospect of anything actually changing, however, seems remote. Just as an obnoxious and unattractive child thrusts its meagre qualities to its parents attention at the expense of its older and more interesting siblings, so Google thrusts its unoriginal services into the public eye to the disgruntlement of Yelp and TripAdvisor. Really, though, it would be stranger if Google didn’t use its enormous platform to push its own content.

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