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Hard-Coding Bias in Google "Algorithmic" Search Results

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Remedies for Search Bias

Google Tying Google Plus and Many More

January 12, 2012


Disclosure: I serve as a consultant to various companies that compete with Google. But I write on my own -- not at the suggestion or request of any client, without approval or payment from any client.

This week Google announced Google Search Plus Your World ("Google Search Plus" for short). Reaction has been critical. Danny Sullivan says Google Search Plus "pushes Google+ over relevancy," and he offers compelling examples demonstrating this favored treatment. Meanwhile, EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg argues that Google is "using its market dominance in a separate sector [search] ... to fight off its challenger Facebook" -- essentially, alleging that Google is tying Google+ to Google Search, forcing users to accept the former if they want the latter.

As Danny and Marc point out, Google is favoring its own ancillary services even when other destinations are objectively superior, and Google is using its dominance in search to compel users to accept Google's other offerings. But this problem is much bigger than Google Search Plus: Google has used similar tying tactics to push dozens of its products for years. I'm working on a detailed article with numerous examples plus relevant antitrust analysis. But with Google Search Plus prompting so much interest, I wanted to flag other areas where Google has invoked these tactics.

This piece proceeds in three parts: I evaluate the competitive implications of Google favoring its own services, including the special benefits Google grants to its own services. I show how Google penalizes those who decline to participate in its tied offerings, including using tying to force others to submit to Google's will even in areas where Google is not yet dominant. Finally, I briefly survey the legal implications and propose a promising but lightweight remedy to begin to curtail the harmful effects of Google's tying.

My takeaway: Google's tying tactics should not be permitted. Google's dominant position in search requires that the company hold itself to a higher level of conduct, including avoiding tying its other products to its dominant search service. Google has repeatedly crossed the line, and antitrust enforcement action is required to put a stop to these practices.

The Competitive Implications of Favoring Google's Own Services

I've found more than a dozen Google services receiving favored placement in Google search results. Consider Google Blog Search, Google Book Search, Google Checkout, Google Health, Google Images, Google Maps, Google News, Google Realtime, Google Shopping, and Google Video. Some have developed into solid products with loyal users. Others are far weaker. But each enjoys a level of favored placement in Google search results that other services can only dream of.

Google uses premium placements and traffic guarantees to address the "chicken and egg" problem that undermines the launch of many online businesses. For example, many retailers might be pleased to be listed (and even be willing to pay to be listed) in a review site or product search site that has many readers. But finding those readers cost-effectively requires algorithmic search traffic, which a new site cannot guarantee -- hindering the site's efforts to attract advertisers. So too for books, local search, movies, travel, and myriad other sectors. Ordinary sites struggle to overcome these challenges -- for example, buying expensive pay-per-click advertising to drive traffic to their sites, or beginning with a period in which they have undesirably few participants. In contrast, anyone assessing the prospects of a new Google service knows that Google can grant its services ample free traffic, on demand and substantially guaranteed. Thus, the success of a new Google service is much more predictable -- reducing Google's barriers to expansion into new sectors. Indeed, if partners recognize that Google can send such traffic whenever it chooses to do so, they may even be willing to join before Google turns on the spigot.

Conversely, Google's ability to favor its own service dulls the incentive for others to even try to compete. Who would risk capital, energy, and talent in building a new image search engine when Google presents Google Image Search results automatically? A new entrant might be 20% better, by whatever metric, but Google's automatic provision of a "good enough" option dulls users' interest in finding a best-of-breed alternative. The problem is particularly acute because the top-most result enjoys 34%+ of all clicks -- so when Google takes that position for itself, there's far less for everyone else.

Google also grants its ancillary services the benefit of certain placement. Ordinary sites have little assurance of what algorithmic search traffic they will receive. They may rank highly for some terms and worse for others. Furthermore, rankings often vary over time, including sudden changes for no apparent reason. As a result, most sites struggle to build business plans around algorithmic search traffic; indeed, companies have laid off staff after unexpected drops in algorithmic search traffic. In contrast, Google's own services can feel confident in the traffic they will receive from Google -- allowing them to plan budgets, advertising sales, hardware requirements, and overall strategy.

By all indications, free traffic from Google Search has played a valuable role in launching many Google businesses. For example, Google Maps usage remained sluggish until Google started to present inline Google Maps directly within Search Results, a practice that began in earnest in 2007. As Consumer Watchdog's 2010 "Traffic Report" shows, this change precipitated a sharp increase in Google Maps' market share: Traffic to Google Maps tripled while traffic to competing map sites fell by half.

So too for Google's launch of Google Finance. service. For example, as of December 2006, Hitwise reported that fully 57% of traffic to Google Finance came from Google Search. By 2009, just 29% of Google Finance traffic came from other Google properties. By providing its ancillary services with additional traffic, when desired and in large quantities unavailable to others, Google gives its ancillary services a greater chance of achieving widespread usage and attracting users and advertisers.

The Special Benefits Google Reserves for Its Own Services

When Google presents its ancillary services within search results, it gives its services distinctive layout and format benefits unavailable to other sites. For example, Google Maps appears with an oversized full-color embedded map, whereas links to other map services appear only as plain hyperlinks. So too for links to Google Shopping, which often feature tabular reports of product pictures, vendors, and prices, whereas competing comparison shopping search engines receive only bare text. Until June 2011, Google Checkout advertisers enjoyed a special logo adjacent to their AdWords ads -- particularly valuable since image advertisements were essentially nonexistent throughout that period. But advertisers who chose other streamlined checkout tools (like Paypal) got no such benefit. Favored treatment extends to the most obscure Google services. Even Google Health listings received a distinctive layout and colored image.

Furthermore, when Google favors its own ancillary services, it sometimes bypasses the algorithms that ordinarily allocate search results. By all indications, Google staff manually override algorithmic results, manually specifying that specific Google services are to appear in specific positions for specific keywords. Of course no other site enjoys such overrides.

Google also seems to exempt its own services from the "host crowding" rules that ordinarily assure source diversity. In 2007, Google's Matt Cutts stated that a single page of results will feature “up to two results” from a single host, though he added that for a domain that “is really relevant” Google “may still return several results from that domain” (emphasis added). But it seems Google waives this rule for its own services. In April 2011, Aaron Wall flagged a search yielding five separate Google Books results among the ten links shown in the first page of Google Search. A commenter found another search term for which nine separate results all pointed to Google Books. (I have a screenshot on file.) On one view, Google Books indexes the work of multiple authors and publishers, and diversity among those authors and publishers provides adequate representation of alternative viewpoints. Yet other repositories also aggregate material from independent authors (consider books at Amazon, or any of thousands of online discussion forums), but only Google seems to enjoy an exception from "host crowding" rules.

Google Effectively Penalizes Those who Decline to Participate In Its Tied Offerings

I joined Google Plus not because I wanted to participate, not to take a look around, but because I perceived that Google would grant my site preferred placement -- more algorithmic traffic -- if I linked my Google Plus account to my web site and online publications. It's hard to figure out whether I was right. But SEO forums are full of users who had the same idea. So Google can force users to join Google Plus to avoid receiving, or expecting to receive, lower algorithmic search ranking. Certainly myriad sites added Google +1 buttons (giving Google both data and real estate) not because they genuinely wanted Google buttons on their sites, but because they feared others would overtake them in search results if they failed to employ Google's newest service.

If an airline declines to participate in Google Flights, its listings are labeled 'no booking links available.' Google fails to offer a more helpful link or booking shortcut, even though it could easily do so. If an airline declines to participate in Google Flights, its listings are labeled "no booking links available." Google fails to offer a more helpful link or booking shortcut, even though it could easily do so.
Google uses similar tying tactics to compel use of its other services. Consider airlines negotiating terms for appearance in Google Flight Search. If Southwest Airlines prefers not to be included in Expedia, it can easily stay out (and in fact it has). Better yet, a diligent airline can negotiate with various travel sites to seek improved terms -- playing one travel site against another to reduce fees. But Google's dominant position impedes any such negotiation. There's only one Google Flight Search at the top of Google search results, and any airline that refuses Google's terms is left behind: Google presents a "no booking links available" bubble, even though Google could easily send bookings to an airline web site without any commercial relationship with the site and without requiring payment from the site. (For an example, click to browse Southwest flights Boston-BWI in May -- simple HTML and JavaScript, essentially a "deep link.")

At the very least, Google could link to an airline's home page in the bottom right, where the "Book" link usually appears; the bottom-right corner is the standard location for a button to continue a multi-step process, and that's the location where Google has trained users to look to proceed with booking. In contrast, Google's bottom-left links are easily overlooked. With so many better options available to Google, Google's decision to withhold this link looks like intentional punishment for any airline that rejected Google's terms.

Google links to the 'owner site' only at the far bottom of the drop-down -- putting all advertisers in more prominent positions.Google links to the "owner site" only at the far bottom of the drop-down -- putting all advertisers in more prominent positions.
Meanwhile, by effectively compelling participation, Google enjoys high revenue from competing bidders. Consider the drop-down lists Google now shows with hotel listings, presenting advertisements for multiple booking services. A user can enter desired dates to receive a price quote from each booking service, with one-click access to the chosen vendor. But some users prefers to book with a hotel directly -- perhaps to reduce booking complexity (less finger-pointing if something goes wrong) or enjoy loyalty program benefits. (Users may also know that hotels pay substantial commissions to the web sites that gather reservations, and some users may wish to spare hotels those costs.) If a consumer clicks the "owner site" link, the consumer will find that his booking dates are discarded, requiring reentry. And even though the "owner site" is the single most authoritative listing for a given property, Google puts all booking services above -- here too, favoring advertising revenue over user convenience. It's an experience savvy hotels would decline completely if Google offered that choice. Instead, Google makes this drop-down compulsory, and there's no way a hotel can opt out.

To its credit, Twitter has recognized the value of the data it holds and has declined to let Google harvest that data on terms Google dictates. But when Twitter complained about Google's favored treatment of Google Search Plus, Google responded: "We are a bit surprised by Twitter's comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer." Google's response completely misses the point. For one, as Danny Sullivan points out, Google fails to use Facebook and Twitter content it knows about (without needing a data license). Furthermore, Google equally fails to use content from thousands of other sources -- from smaller social networks, for example. Instead, Google favors its own service.

Over and over, Google has tied its services in various combinations to compel (or attempt to compel) others to bend to its will.

I'll have more examples in my forthcoming paper.

On one level, these are standard "all-or-nothing" tactics: Google has something others want, and Google only provides the desired service if it gets it way. But the impact is clear: Google's multiple mutually-reinforcing tying arrangements extend Google's position of dominance, forcing prospective business partners to bend to Google's will, and enlarging Google's control over ever more sectors.

Legal Implications

When Google presents its ancillary services in its search results, it engages in classic "tying" behavior, raising concern under US and European antitrust law. Certainly Google's search service is dominant, and US and EU investigations have already held as much -- triggering the heightened duties of those with a dominant position.

Yet Google offers its search results only with its own ancillary services. In particular, Google gives no mechanism for users to obtain Google Search with others' ancillary services or with no ancillary services at all. This tactic has already led Google to dominance in blog search, book search, image search, maps, news, and product search, and it is amply clear how this tactic could soon lead Google to dominance in reviews, local search, and travel search (satisfying the "dangerous probability" test in Verizon v. Trinko note 4). Is Google likely to succeed in social? It seems network effects offer somewhat greater protection to Facebook and Twitter than they do to review sites or travel search sites. But when Google uses the same tying strategy to claim a leg up in myriad sectors, it's no great stretch to view the strategy with equal skepticism wherever it arises.

In Remedies for Search Bias, I offered several suggestions to blunt the worst of these practices. Most relevant: Google should let users swap its own services for competitors' offerings. Consider users' ability to choose their preferred web browser, media player, email program, and myriad other applications -- choices that facilitates continued competition and innovation in all these areas. Yet a user at Google.com has zero ability to eschew Google Maps for Mapquest, or to replace Google Places reviews with Yelp. The first time a user runs a search calling for a review, Google could ask the user for his preferred review provider, and an unobtrusive drop-down box would let the user make changes later. Similar prompts would appear, as needed, for other key sectors -- limited, of course, to areas where Google seeks to promote an offering of its own. I was thrilled when, in a little-noticed remark last summer, Danny Sullivan endorsed this approach ("hey eric: how about letting people choose their shopping, local, etc. one box provider?"). It's an elegant and straightforward solution, sidestepping the most complicated questions of "regulating search" but putting an important check on Google's abuse of its dominant position in search.