It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that Google‘s promotion of search results would promote those coming from its own services, like Google+. The search giant has always justified its manipulation of results to give users a better experience, but that excuse might no longer fly if a recent study is to believed. Yelp commissioned a research headed by Tim Wu, credited for coining the term “Net Neutrality”, and their conclusion minces no words. Google, they claim, is intentionally degrading search results in order to push content from its services, inevitably harming users along the way.
The test involved two batches of searches. The first one searched through Google normally. The second batch made use of a plugin called Focus on the User which surfaced reviews from third party sites over those coming from Google+. According to the study, the second batch produced more engagement, with users clicking search results 45 percent more than the first batch. According to Tim Wu and research partner Michael Luca, a Harvard business professor, the difference is subtle but damaging. By artificially promoting results from Google+, Google runs the risk of promoting inferior content instead of better ones coming from third party sites.
Not everyone, however, buys the study. Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan, for example, thinks the study is unnecessary since it was just stating the obvious anyway. He also thinks that Wu and Luca’s conclusions might be exaggerating the situation. Few click on those irrelevant links anyway. And sometimes, just sometimes, the Google+ reviews might actually be more helpful than those from, say Yelp. Others, like Penn State University Information Science professor Jim Jansen, think that it’s a self-correcting problem. If users start preferring non-Google+ results, the search engine algorithms will start noticing the pattern and demote Google+ reviews according. Presuming, of course, that Google doesn’t have a special algorithm that promotes its surface regardless.
One might also question the study’s confirmation bias. It was, after all, commissioned by Yelp, who naturally wants to see its own reviews rank higher than those from Google. It is, in the end, in its own best interest to have Google+ results demoted in favor of its own. Nonetheless, Wu and Luca believe that the study can be used as ammo in ongoing and future litigation against Google’s anti-competitive practices.