Study Slams Google For 'Reducing Social Welfare' With 'Lower Quality Results'

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Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu and Yelp collaborated on a study of Google's search results, and have declared that Google is hurting the consumer experience of search results by favoring is own content which in some cases may be inferior to organic results that would otherwise be surfaced.

The paper was presented at Oxford University's Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, and comes as Google is in the process of preparing its response to antitrust action from the European Commission. Yelp, a vocal critic of Google from way back, is a complainant in that.

The study makes use of search results as demonstrated by a tool Yelp launched last year called "Focus on the User - Local". This is a browser plugin, which claims to demonstrate how Google manipulates its results for the worse by removing the biased element.

The study surveyed nearly 2,700 people utilizing the results.

"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," the paper says. "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. To investigate, we implement a randomized controlled trial in which we vary the search results that users are shown - comparing Google's current policy of favorable treatment of Google content to results in which external content is displayed. We find that users are 45% more likely to engage with universal search results (i.e. prominently displayed map results on Google) when he results are organically determined. This suggests that by leveraging dominance in search to promote its internal content, Google is reducing social welfare - leaving consumers with lower quality results and worse matches."

Here's the full report, uploaded by Yelp's Luther Lowe:

It shouldn't surprise anyone to see Yelp putting out such a report, but Wu on the other hand, said in the past that "Google was pretty clean." This was in the aftermath of an FTC settlement a couple years back.

He wrote this in January of 2013: "What saved the company weren't the millions Google wasted lobbying Senators or paying Republicans to be its friends. It was its engineers, who designed its services in a way that maximized effectiveness while avoiding rampant illegality."

"Google just didn’t have this kind of blood on its hands, at least at this point in its history," he later wrote in the same column. "Yes, Google had made decisions that its competitors didn’t like, but ultimately American law favors an improved product over the protection of failed competitors; that is the standard that the FTC is obliged to adhere to. And with some exceptions mentioned above, Google’s engineers generally produced products that beat its competitors on the merits. Ultimately, it is not the job of the Federal Government to try and convince people to use Bing."

Wu has some significantly different things to day now, however. From Re/code:

“When the facts change, your thinking should change,” Wu told Re/code about the evolution of his stance. “The main surprising and shocking realization is that Google is not presenting its best product. In fact, it’s presenting a version of the product that’s degraded and intentionally worse for consumers.”

He added: “This is the closest I’ve seen Google come to [being] the Microsoft case.”

Google isn't commenting on the study's findings.

Image via YouTube

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.