Google today dismissed a study, which two academic researchers conducted and Yelp sponsored, that claims the company is deliberately degrading search engine results in order to favor its own content over that of rivals.
In a statement to eWEEK, Google said Yelp's claims are not new. "Yelp's been making these arguments to regulators, and demanding higher placement in search results, for the past five years," Google said. "This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries. At Google, we focus on trying to provide the best results for our users," company officials said.
At issue is the method Google uses to display results when users search for certain items, especially those involving specialized content or local content. The researchers said their study shows that Google self-promotes its own content while deliberately downplaying the more organic results generated by its merit-based search algorithms.
In the study, the researchers from Harvard Business School and Columbia Law School presented a sample of 2,690 Internet users with one of two variants of Web page listing results in response to different search questions. One set of pages listed results based on relevancy and included prominent links to sites like Yelp. The other page highlighted content from Google's own properties.
The researchers discovered that, in certain cases, users clearly preferred results that highlighted content Google generated, over the naturally generated results. However, in other situations, the opposite was true.
For example, users preferred the interactive calculator that Google presents in its search results in response to mathematical questions, over the series of links the search engine organically generated.
However, in other cases, the company's practice of using its so-called "universal search" feature to play up results from its own properties, such as Google Plus, Google Local and Google Maps, is actually hurting consumers, the researchers said.
For example, when users search for a local restaurant, Google's search algorithm might trigger Yelp as the first result. But the results that Google ends up listing prominently in its so-called Local OneBox are almost always from its own search services. Users ended up preferring organic search results, rather than Google's more specialized search results in such situations, the researchers found.
They also concluded that the results Google presents to users via universal search are not always the best or most relevant. Often, the results generated organically by Google's own merit-based search algorithm garner a higher ranking than the results the company ends up making prominent, they said.
"Universal search in its operation is almost inherently exclusionary, for it uses the dominant search engine to divert traffic from Google's specialized competitors (Expedia, Yelp, etc.) to its own versions of those companies," the researchers said. "That fact has, unsurprisingly, [been scrutinized] both by European and American competition regulators."
Google's strategy fits a pattern by monopolists, the researchers claimed. Faced with competition from specialty search services like Yelp, Expedia and others, Google's response has been to first create clones of these services and then use its search engine dominance to play up those services.
Complaints about Google's use of its search engine dominance to hurt rivals are not new. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission previously investigated the company on the issue, but ended up not charging it with any misdeeds. The Competition Office at the European Commission, which oversees industry trade practices in the EU, is currently investigating Google on a similar issue in Europe.