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Google Skews Search to Detriment of Buyers and Sellers

Online buyers and sellers are highly suspicious of algorithms that search engines and online marketplaces use to determine the sort order of search results. A new study gives credence to their suspicions, alleging that the king of search, Google, is skewing its results presumably in order to favor its own content and exclude rivals.

“When it comes to local search, Google is presenting its users with a degraded version of its search engine,” the authors wrote, who say both consumers and merchants are hurt by such actions. The research was conducted by Michael Luca, Tim Wu, and the Yelp Data Science Team and results, “Is Google degrading search? Consumer Harm from Universal Search,” was published Sunday.

The researchers found that consumers preferred competitive results rather than results chosen by Google. “This leads to the conclusion that Google is degrading its own search results by excluding its competitors at the expense of its users.”

But why would it do so? “The fact that Google’s own algorithm would provide better results suggests that Google is making a strategic choice to display their own content, rather than choosing results that consumers would prefer,” the report stated.

The abstract of the report says that 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. “By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to leverage its dominance in search to gain customers for this content. This yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results.”

Online sellers are keenly aware of the importance of search. When eBay changed its default sort order from recency to “Best Match,” sellers struggled to learn what factors the secret algorithm prioritized – and they were devastated when Google took its previously free shopping search engine to a pay-to-play model.

Studying Google search results is more than an academic exercise – it reveals how Google’s practices impact businesses in the real world. “The tools for finding information on the web have always had an important influence on nearly all aspects of economic activity and innovation on the web and its connection to “Main Street” small businesses,” the researchers stated. “The ability of buyers and sellers to connect can do much to determine which businesses succeed and which fail, what innovations catch on, and which flounder.”

In what some would say is an ironic twist, eBay itself learned just how important search exposure is when Google penalized it last year; one year later, it has yet to recover its standings, reporting in April that growth is still negatively impacted by the SEO penalty. Unfortunately, that also directly impacts the sellers who pay to list their items on eBay.

It’s important to note that the researchers conducting the Google study have skin in the game. Bloomberg pointed out Yelp has been one of Google’s primary opponents in the global antitrust fight and said it paid Tim Wu for his work on the paper. Bloomberg also cited critics of the study.

It said that in presenting the research on Sunday, Wu said he felt that 90% of what Google does “makes life easier or better,” and said, “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 research report is available on Slideshare.

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Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). She is a member of the Online News Association (Sep 2005 - present) and Investigative Reporters and Editors (Mar 2006 - present). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com. See disclosure at EcommerceBytes.com/disclosure/.