EU regulators are not the only ones to take issue with the way Google searches the web. Now a team of Yelp researchers has teamed up with Tim Wu, the US academic that popularized the concept of net neutrality, to detail how Google gives unfair priority to its own services when performing local searches, and the deleterious effects that practice has on the user's access to useful information.
"Consumers vastly prefer competitive results, as scored by Google's own search engine, than results chosen by Google."
"Google is reducing social welfare," proclaims the introduction to a paper co-authored by Wu, Michael Luca of the Harvard Business School, and the Yelp Data Science Team. The paper presents the findings of a randomized controlled trial wherein purely algorithmic search results are compared to Google's query-specific, tailored results. In some circumstances, there's an obvious benefit to the user — such as when Google provides immediate answers to calculation or conversion queries — but the research also finds instances where that's not the case.
With a particular focus on search for local services and information, the researchers find that "consumers vastly prefer ... competitive results, as scored by Google's own search engine, than results chosen by Google." Local searches are said to now constitute a third of Google's overall search traffic (the proportion on mobile is even higher, rising to 50 percent), so the way the company handles them is indeed significant. That being said, the metric by which consumer preference is measured in this study is simple clicks: people were 45 percent more likely to click on organic search results than they were on Google's tailored search that presents its own list of nearby businesses or services.
Both Wu and his co-author Luca have been paid for their time by Yelp, a major adversary to Google in the sphere of presenting local information, but Wu is adamant that it's the data that has compelled his participation in the study. "I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think this new evidence was a game-changer," he tells Recode, adding that "this is the closest I’ve seen Google come to the Microsoft case." The case he's referring to is Microsoft's infamous bundling of the Internet Explorer browser with Windows, which artificially promoted IE's use despite the existence of far superior alternatives. Tim Wu now sees Google doing the same thing with search: "it’s presenting a version of the product that’s degraded and intentionally worse for consumers."