Published On: Tue, Jun 30th, 2015

Study: Google Really Does Skew Search Results to Favor Its Own Content


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The European Union now has some new ammunition to use in its anti-trust case against Google. A new study from researchers at Harvard and Columbia Universities, which was funded by the online review site Yelp, has found that the world’s biggest search engine really does skew search results to favor itself.

This confirms an allegation made by European regulators.

Do you find Google searches to be frustrating and offering only limited results at times? Well there may be a reason for it.

The study was conducted by Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca, Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu, and Yelp’s data science team and deals specifically with the results that come up in searches for local businesses. They presented 2, 690 web users with two versions of Google. One version presented the people with search results for local businesses in the way which users ordinarily see them, with links to the businesses along with ratings as posted to a Google site. But the second version showed the people links to businesses along with ratings from rival sites like Yelp.

The study found that users were 45% more likely to click on results that were ranked purely by relevance. This as opposed to how Google ranks them now, with its own services displayed prominently.

“While Google is known primarily as a search engine, it has increasingly developed and promoted its own content as an alternative to results from other websites”, highlights the paper. They nevertheless cross-checked the results using data from Yelp, which indicated they provided a reasonable estimate of actual user behavior. Google would likely argue that if it delivers results at a glance those extra clicks aren’t needed, ” the researchers stated.

“Our findings suggest that Google is – in some instances – actually making its overall product worse for users in order to provide favourable treatment to Google content”. They showed two versions of search results for local business searches, which according to the study represent roughly one-third of desktop search volume and over one-half of mobile search. What’s also worth noting is that Google’s search has enough advertising market clout that it is nearly viewed as a utility that sits in between both sides of the market. That near-50% increase in clicks is “immense in the modern Web industry”, the authors wrote.

See the report here.


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