Google harms consumers and strangles the open web, says study

Plurality? Diversity?

Google’s favourable treatment of its own services results in consumer harm and will make the web less diverse, a study into search engine users’ behaviour has claimed.

Heavyweight law prof Tim Wu, who coined the phrase “net neutrality”, is one of the authors of the study, which was supported by data from Yelp, a Google rival.

“By leveraging dominance in search to promote its internal content, Google is reducing social welfare – leaving consumers with lower quality results and worse matches.”

Maintaining Google’s dominance comes at a cost to the ad giant, as well as punters, they find:

“Google is – in some instances – actually making its overall product worse for users in order to provide favourable treatment to Google content”.

The researchers conducted randomised trials. Some users were shown real Google results which promoted its own products, such as Google+ local search. Others were shown results with third-party content, such as er, Yelp, boosted higher than Google’s own rankings.

This was achieved via a Chrome plug in, which behind the scenes added the string “ OR OR OR ...” to the query.

Some 45 per cent more users clicked on the results when third-party content was more prominently displayed.

Consumers are harmed by this, the researchers concluded. When Google shows simple results such as the answer to an arithmetic or currency query, consumers benefit.

Overall however, the researchers claimed that Google was hampering consumers access to competitors, which consumers clearly seem to prefer.

The study mirrors Google’s own secret testing several years ago, the results of which only appeared by accident in response to an FoI request by the Wall Street Journal to the Federal Trade Commission this year.

Those tests showed that users preferred third-party content to Google’s own often derivative products. Some Google services look like unbiased third-party sites, performing price comparison, but are merely commercial paid placement operations. Google Shopping is one such example.

Ironically, promoting one's own content was something that Google once vowed not to do.

"Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web," Larry Page told Playboy in 2004. "We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results ... a search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It’s a very different model."

Or was.

The conflict arises because Google runs a two-sided market, operating in “wholesale” (aka “platform”) as well as “retail”. Essentially, it both owns the shopping centre, and has a number of prominent outlets in the shopping centre, too.

The accusation is that by moving these flagship outlets to high-trafficked areas, it steals business from other players in the mall. Google’s behaviour, wrote Wu et al, makes the web less diverse. It also has consequences for plurality and self-expression.

Those last accusations will hurt: Google presents itself as defender of the “open web”. Perhaps it’s only as open as Google allows.

Brussels' competition officials have issued a formal Statement of Objections against Google’s conduct in demoting third-party content (see: What did Google do so wrong to get a slapping from the EU?). Google recently defended its actions, but it did so by using highly questionable chairmanship, objectors have said.

The Register contacted Google for a comment about the issues raised and will update this story if it does get in touch.

You can read the study in full here. ®

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