Google has been accused of manipulating search results in Europe, but the search engine giant has new trouble on its hands. A new paper published by Michael Lupa, Tim Wu, and the Yelp Data Science Team (this is the Yelp reviews company) says that Google is guilty of doing what the company has denied – using the search engine to favor its own results over others.
The parties claim that Google touts its universal search over others, and it seems as though its universal search is good for business and the consumer. At the same time, however, Google’s local specialized search results don’t operate with the same “merit-based algorithm” that its universal search does – meaning that local-based searches could prioritize other businesses and search engine results above Google’s own. Yelp says that its experiment found that, when local searches utilize the same algorithm as universal searches, users prefer universal searches that utilize the merit-based algorithm, not Google’s exclusive local search:
The study is conducted by randomly displaying one of two sets of search result screenshots to thousands of internet users: one set of users sees the Google universal search page as it is currently constituted; the second set sees an alternative version of universal search. In the alternative version, a browser plug-in named ‘Focus on the User’ – Local” (FOTUL) has queried third-party review sites and ranked them, using Google’s own organic search algorithm…consumers prefer, in effective, competitive results, as scored by Google’s own search engine, than results chosen by Google. This leads to the conclusion that Google is degrading its own search results by excluding its competitors at the expense of its users. The fact that Google’s own algorithm would provide better results suggests that Google is making a strategic choice to display their own content, rather than choosing results that consumers would prefer,” the paper said.
The claim made by the team is that when Google’s search formula is employed in the same way that it’s utilized for universal search, other competitors outrank Google and would have their content promoted above Google. Rather than Google allow this, the company has chosen to redirect search results so that its own appear above what could be better information for merchants and users. In the end, the user is the one hurting, but businesses are also hurt in the process.
Yelp is such a victim, and it claims that its financial welfare would be improved if Google were called out and its search engine manipulation were halted.
Former FTC advisor Tim Wu, who authored the paper, says that this paper differs from one he wrote for The New Republic two years ago, defending Google’s work in search engine results. The reason for the change has to do with the results of the experiment. “When the facts change, your thinking should change. The main surprising and shocking realization is that Google is not presenting its best product. In fact, it’s presenting a version of the product that’s degraded and intentionally worse for users,” he said.
Tim Wu’s change on this whole deal is food for thought: after all, could it be the case that the largest search engine giant is doing this intentionally? There seems to be smoke (and that could lead to “fire”), but it’s leading some to affirm the old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.