Google Accused Of Search Nepotism

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Google has previously gotten in trouble in Europe for allegedly giving preference to its own content over that of competitors in search results. The European Union warned the search giant about anti-competitive practices last year. Now a new study appears to back up the allegations that Google places its own content higher than that of competitors in search results.

Yelp complains about Google

The study was conducted by the Yelp Data Science team and co-authored by Harvard Business School economist Michael Luca and former FTC advisor Tim Wu. Fortune’s Barb Darrow reported on the study. It should be noted that Yelp has complained about Google in Europe in the past.

The Federal Trade Commission settled with Google in 2013 on this same topic, and Re/code reports that Wu has changed his opinion on Google. The website states that he previously supported the FTC’s settlement with Google, believing that the reason Google content dominated its own search results was because of the company’s merits and not because it was favoring its own content.

Google degrading search results?

Wu told the website that Google isn’t presenting its “best product.” Instead, he said the search giant is presenting a version “that’s degraded and intentionally worse for consumers,” comparing Google to Microsoft. In 2001, Microsoft got in trouble for preinstalling its own web browser on Windows-based computers. Nothing ever came of that, however.

Wu’s study indicates that Google unfairly leverages its dominance in search to draw readers to its content. That’s a concern if that content isn’t as good as content that would otherwise be found in organic search results. The study found that users were 45% more likely to “engage” with universal search results like Google’ map results when those results are “organically determined.” The study takes issue with what’s called “universal search.”

“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,” the study’s authors wrote.

Consumers didn’t choose Google

Google claims that it has actually created a better product through universal search, and the study suggests that while this may be true in a few cases, it often isn’t the case.

In conducting the study, researchers compared the universal search results as determined by Google with those using a browser plugin called “Focus on the User – Local,” which queried third-party review sites and then ranked them with Google’s organic algorithm. Researchers discovered that consumers “vastly” preferred the results returned by the browser plugin rather than Google’s results. As a result, they came to the conclusion that Google may be “degrading its own search results by excluding its competitors at the expense of its users.”  Because the plugin used Google’s own algorithm, researchers decided that the product the search giant is actually offering consumers isn’t as good as the product it would be offering if it did not give preference to its own content.

Earlier this year, Google pledged support for eight major European publishers, and there were speculations that the company was seeking to build its image in the region. Meanwhile EU regulators are continuing to investigate allegations about anti-competitive practices by Google.

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