Does Google Manipulate Search Results? This Harvard-Columbia Study Cries Foul

Posted on July 7, 2015 in Sci-Tech

By P.V. Durga:

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. This revelation comes from a study conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School and Colombia Law School, published by the Yelp data science team. Yelp, the company that provides business ratings and reviews has been crying foul for quite some time.

Image credit: Baiduri's Blog
Image credit: Baiduri’s Blog

While this might seem like a case of warring businesses washing dirty linen in public, it has an effect on consumers too. Our searches on Google might not get the optimal results, because Google is promoting its less popular Google Reviews on the page. At the same time, even the merchants are being denied the prospect of selling best results.

Here is how it works. Every time you type something in the search box, Google displays “organic” results, which means that they are generated according to the ranking algorithms of a search engine and not according to paid placements by advertisers. Yelp complained that Google had been placing its unpopular reviews and Google+ links higher up in the page, and unfairly promoting them as against those of Yelp and Tripadvisor, which are pushed to the bottom of the page. Therefore, the organic results are biased towards Google’s own links and sites. Yelp also released a document stating that Google was tapping away about 20% of the clicks from the search engine traffic.

Considering the fact that Google dominates 90% of the search in Europe, we may imply that it could be exploiting its monopoly to dominate other companies. Reports claim that search and clicks are a crucial to sites such as Yelp because shoppers and diners who wish to buy something in future often visit Yelp. Google’s domination over this sphere means that Yelp is also losing the revenue that advertisers pay.

But all is not black and white. There are some subtle dimensions to this issue too. The document circulated within Yelp also acknowledged that Google still does send a majority of the searches to Yelp. So, Yelp does not have a problem with the fact that Google dominates the search. Rather, they are worried that by using its dominance, Google is distorting markets other than the search industry. Another dimension is the idea of “universal search” that is mentioned in the study. By nature, this excludes competitors in a specialized search, and therefore, has attracted a lot of scrutiny. Google defended itself, stating that it is “pro- competitive” and “serves the interests of the users”.

In September 2014, it was reported that the “rivals” of Google (including Yelp) had convinced the European Union and its antitrust chief to reopen its enquiry into the issue. The 4 year antitrust investigation was reopened because of the negativity in the response of the complainants. The process is still underway, and it is difficult to see how the problem would be solved. However, beyond the economics, it is a question of fairness, and the quality of service that Google provides its consumers with.