Tim Wu: Google 'Knowingly Degrades' Search Results

The result is a worse experience for users, a new study states.

Jun 29 2015, 6:00pm

Image: Flickr/jacinta lluch valero

Google uses its role as the internet's chief information gatekeeper to boost its own products and undercut competitors, according to a new study—and users are worse off because of it.

The study, funded by Yelp, found that Google routinely filters its search results to favour results from Google+. This is because Google's universal search algorithm mixes "organic" results from around the web with a select few plucked from Google's own services.

Tim Wu, who coined the term "net neutrality" in 2003, and Harvard business professor Michael Luca conducted the study with members of Yelp's Data Science Team. According to Wu and Luca, Google's algorithm actually harms users by limiting the information they see to what resides in the Google ecosystem.

"By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to leverage its dominance in search to gain customers for this content," the study reads. "This yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results."

Wu and Luca had 2,690 people first search Google normally, and then with an open source plug-in called Focus on the User, which automatically augments searches to fetch results from third party review sites instead of Google+. The results of the survey showed that users clicked through on search results 45 percent more often when using Focus on the User.

"The study's unnecessary"

The researchers interpreted this finding as indicating that customers prefer when results come from outside of Google's ecosystem, and demonstrates that Google is "intentionally degrading" the customer experience in order to undercut its competitors.

A Google representative declined to comment on the study.

Concerns with Google's dominance of the internet search market are hardly new, and the company has been called a "monopoly" so many times that it's become a bit of a cliche. In the past, the company has justified its search-limiting practices by insisting that it's really just trying to make search better by only serving the most relevant results instead of a pile of links to sift through.

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But according to Danny Sullivan, editor of industry blog Search Engine Land, these results might not really demonstrate the kind of harm that Wu and Luca suggest. Basically, Sullivan said, nobody clicks through on business listings anyway.

"If you've increased the percentage of relatively few people clicking on those to a little less than a few, it's not that big a deal," Sullivan says. "It sounds like a big deal. Like, wow, we increased the engagement. But now, instead of nobody clicking on these, practically nobody's clicking on these. Big deal."

There may also be cases where Google's reviews are just as helpful, if not more helpful, than Yelp's review collection, Sullivan said. Still, he said, Google could do a better job pointing to Yelp and other third parties for local reviews.

The situation might be a self-correcting one

Google's tendency to localize searches and promote its own services has long been known, and was the impetus for the Yelp and TripAdvisor-led campaign that birthed the Focus on the User browser plug-in. "The study's unnecessary," Sullivan said. "I don't need to do a big study to see that Yelp reviews don't show up when I search for businesses."

Jim Jansen, a professor of information science at Penn State University who has studied search engines since the 1990s, told me in an email that he believes the study has a point about Google promoting its own services, but that the situation might be a self-correcting one.

"If there is an over reliance on Google+ for local maps results, and this approach gives sub-optimal results, then searchers will not use it (i.e., no clicks), instead deferring to the organic listed results," Jansen wrote. "The search engine will see the change in [click-through rate] and adjust ranking approaches."

Wu and Luca insist that the empirical demonstration of customer in their study harm should be considered in any anti-competition disputes going forward. Google is currently facing allegations in the European Union that it promotes its own shopping services over those of its competitors', so for Google, this study really couldn't have come at a better—or potentially worse—time.