At this point, it is no longer surprising to find out that Google is actively promoting in search results links that come from its own services, such as Google+. Previous manipulations of returned results were always justified by the concept of offering the user the best experience they can, but that excuse might not work this time.
According to a recent study conducted by Tim Wu – the one responsible with coining the term “net neutrality” – under Yelp’s umbrella, Google is intentionally demoting search results in favor of content coming from its services. Without a doubt, such practices inevitably end up harming users along the way.
Two different searches were performed: first one included surfing on Google normally. Second one had a plugin – Focus on the User – added to the search, surfacing third-party reviewed sites in detriment of those coming from Google+.
According to the results, the second type of search generated the most user engagement, as they clicked on search results 45 percent more than during the first search. It’s not a subtle difference, as Tim Wu and Michael Luca, Harvard business professor and research partner have pointed out.
By altering the algorithms as to artificially favor websites from Google+, the giant tech company is creating a context for inferior content to be promoted instead of better third-party websites.
There are some, however, who think the study is not to be believed. For example, Danny Sullivan, an editor for Search Engine Land editor, thinks the study does nothing but state the obvious. At the same time, Sullivan pointed to the fact that the experiment’s conclusions might not be reflecting the situation as it actually is.
According to him, few users click on irrelevant links anyway, on one hand. On the other, Google+ reviews might sometimes be more helpful or relevant than others, such as those offered by Yelp.
Others, such as Jim Jansen, an information science professor from the Penn State University, think that this problem is bound to be self-correcting; if non-Google+ websites will be accessed more by users, the search engine algorithms will adapt accordingly by demoting Google+ reviews.
At the same time, the study’s bias is to be questioned as well. After all, it was Yelp which made it possible, a rival company which naturally wants to see its reviews ranking as highest as possible. Either way, Wu and Luca think this study is evidence that can be used in a future litigation against Google’s illegal anti-competitive actions.
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