In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission cleared Google of allegations that it violated antitrust laws by promoting its own offerings -- like Google Maps -- in the search results.
That decision obviously was a big disappointment to Yelp, which was among the companies that had complained about Google's search results. But the review service didn't give up its battle with Google after the FTC declined to prosecute. Instead, Yelp continued to criticize Google in Europe, where regulators have alleged that the search company abused its dominant position in the market by favoring its own products and services in the results.
Yelp also funded a new study, unveiled this weekend, which concludes that Google potentially “degrades” its search results, to the detriment of users. “Our findings suggest that Google is -- in some instances -- actually making its overall product worse for users in order to provide favorable treatment to Google content,” states the paper, which was co-authored by legal scholar and longtime net neutrality proponent Tim Wu and Harvard Business School's Michael Luca.
For the study, researchers showed Web users different versions of local search results pages for queries like “pediatricians NYC” and “coffee louisville ky.”
One group of people was shown the typical Google “universal search” results, which featured results from Google's own services at the top of the page. The second was shown results that the researchers said reflected Google's “merit-based algorithmic process used to populate organic results.”
Researchers surveyed a total of 2,690 Web users; the report includes a detailed methodology section outlining how the study's architects determined the “merit-based” algorithmic results.
Around one in three users -- 32% -- clicked on Google's current results, compared with 47% who clicked on the page when it returned “merit-based” results, the study found.
The difference in click-through rates led the authors to conclude that Google's decision to promote its own content might be harming users. “Users are engaging at a lower rate with the universal results, which suggests they would prefer the alternative version presented,” Wu and Luca write.
They also say that Google's decision to “degrade” search results harms consumers as well as merchants.
“Consider, for example, a consumer who is misdirected and ends up at a bad restaurant or the parents who are looking for a top-notch pediatrician, but because of search degradation, patronize a subpar practitioner,” the report states. “The harm caused by such misdirection when it occurs, will vary, but is undeniable in the aggregate.”
Wu and Luca also argue that Google's decisions about how to rank search results can affect a wide range of content creators. “The more that Google directs users to its own content and its own properties, the more that speakers who write reviews, blogs and other materials become invisible to their desired audiences,” the authors say.
University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann, who has expressed doubt over whether search engines like Google could ever be required to return “neutral” results, says the study is “well done” in that it makes a “focused point about consumer harm.”
“The onus is on Google to explain why the study's premises are wrong, or why there's some other benefit to users,” he tells MediaPost.
In the past, Google has said it has every incentive to return the most relevant possible results, in order to prevent consumers from abandoning the service in favor of Bing or other search engines.
A Google spokesperson said today that Yelp has long pressed the theories advanced in the study. “Yelp's been making these arguments to regulators, and demanding higher placement in search results, for the past five years,” the spokesperson says. “This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries.”