Google May Be Hurting Users By Manipulating Search Results, Says Study

A new study could strengthen a European antitrust case against Google.

Google May Be Hurting Users By Manipulating Search Results, Says Study
[Photo: Flickr user Mark Jensen]

In April, the European Union officially filed antitrust charges against Google, accusing the search giant of redirecting traffic from competitors and distorting search results to favor its own services, such as Google Shopping. Google fired back at the E.U. in a blog post, saying that it has plenty of competition in the realm of both search and shopping sites, and that “allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved to be wide of the mark.”


A study published today, however, could poke holes in Google’s steely defense. Authored by Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who coined the term net neutrality, the paper notes that Google “has increasingly developed and promoted its own content as an alternative to results from other websites.”

Wu’s research used a plug-in developed by reviews site Yelp–one of Google’s biggest rivals–which replaced its native results with the external listings that the search engine had actually deemed “most relevant”. Through A/B testing, the study presented participants with two different versions of a local search results page, both of which featured the “Local OneBox,” which usually displays seven Google+ results pinned to a Google Map. The version created with the plug-in showed only results from Yelp and other third-party services in the Local OneBox, while the native Google page featured the standard Google+ fare.

Wu found that users were 45% more likely to click on the map results that did not pull up Google+ pages, which he says indicates that Google is compromising its own search results. Yelp’s public policy vice president Luther Lowe sent Fast Company a video that further explains the study’s methodology:

An important note: Yelp paid both Wu and his co-author, Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca, for their work on the study.

Though Wu has long pledged his support for Google, he told Bloomberg that in this case, the data just doesn’t work in Google’s favor:

“I have great respect and admiration for Google as a company, and feel that 90% of what they do makes life easier or better. In this case, I am convinced that Yelp’s data is showing a deviation from those principles, and I agreed to write the paper to make that point known to the world.”

The paper’s methodology does not necessarily account for whether or not users who clicked on the Yelp plug-in’s results with more frequency actually preferred those to Google’s native results–which means that Google could still argue that its results are best meeting user needs. The company has also focused on making information available within its search results, to reduce the number of times a person must click to find what they are looking for. But Wu points out that this doesn’t change the fact that Google is unfairly tweaking its search results, regardless of the outcome for users:


“Given that general Google search faces limited and in some countries no direct competition, I think it can get away with weakening or degrading the product, and suffer little consequence. In fact, in antitrust cases, the ability to do things that effectively eliminate consumer welfare like offering a degraded search can be evidence of market or monopoly power.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, this research was shared with E.U. regulators on Friday. One European antitrust official told the WSJ that a study like this could “certainly bring things forward”, making their case against Google stronger, despite the company’s repeated denial of such accusations.

[via Re/code]

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.