Tool Claims To Show Google Search Bias

Chris CrumSearch

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As recently reported, Yelp has formed a coalition (not entirely unlike the FairSearch Coalition) with other Google critics/competitors Consumer Watchdog, Jameda, HolidayCheck, TripAdvisor, and Fight for the Future. The group launched the site Focus on the User, which comes with a downloadable Chrome extension to show you how Google "manipulates" search results to inject its own content and reviews from Google+, even when results from some of the aforementioned competitors would be more relevant (at least according to said competitors).

Does Google unfairly manipulate its search results in your opinion? Let us know in the comments.

In another article, we looked at how Google is injecting more and more direct "answers" into its search results, and how these answers have varying degrees of accuracy, and have the potential to send less traffic to third-party websites, which it's actually getting these answers from in many cases.

Google has said time and time again, however, that it focuses on users, not websites. Yelp and its cohorts are therefore using that mantra as their angle for this new Google criticism initiative, which comes as the EU awaits new concessions from the search giant to quell so-called anti-competition concerns. In fact, the tagline on the site's homepage is: "Google+ is hurting the Internet. Europeans have the power to stop it."

Here's the introduction video.

The video demonstrates the Chrome extension, which claims to "turn on" the main Google algorithm within local Onebox results, so that these results show what the algorithm actually deems the most relevant, which (you guessed it) tends to be things from the competitors and not Google+.

"You might think that Google gives you the best answers from across the web when you search for something as important as a pediatrician in Munich, a bicycle repair shop in Copenhagen, or a hotel in Madrid," the site says. "But Google doesn’t actually use its normal organic search algorithm to produce the responses to this question that you see prominently on the first screen. Instead, it promotes a more limited set of results drawn from Google+ ahead of the more relevant ones you would get from using Google's organic search algorithm."

The group says it has tested the tool's results with thousands of users, and that all of the info in the demo comes from Google itself. It also shares this piece of anecdotal evidence:

When you search for “hotel berlin” today, Google.co.uk injects a map on the right side of the screen showing locations of Berlin hotels. Having a map appear for local searches makes sense. But rather than connecting the map pins to HolidayCheck, a leading hotel review provider founded in Germany, the map is hard-coded to Google+’s review ecosystem. This clearly doesn’t produce the most relevant results, as HolidayCheck almost always ranks higher than Google+ content according to Google’s own relevance ranker. You can see this for yourself by trying a simple test. Perform a search on Google for [hotel berlin (site:holidaycheck.de OR site:plus.google.com)]. Limiting the search to only these two review ecosystems makes it possible to see how they rank comparatively according to Google’s own relevance-based general search algorithm.

The results are rather shocking: for that query, Google’s general search algorithm thinks HolidayCheck has over 370 results that are more relevant than the most relevant result from Google+. But Google still gives Google+ preferential placement in search results.

The FAQ portion of the group's website is where it really makes its arguments against known Google defenses about such criticisms.

For example, it's Google's site. Shouldn't it be able to do whatever it wants?

"Most of the time yes, but not if Google is acting anti-competitively by abusing its dominant position in organic search to tie its vertical search products, depriving consumers of relevant results, stifling competition and impairing innovation," it says. "Consumers need to be able to access competitive sources of information from across the web; by tying its own vertical search products to organic search results, Google prevents this."

A common defense from Google is that competition is only a click away. And it is. There's no real argument for this in my opinion. Users don't have to use Google, which is a free service just like its competitors. There is absolutely nothing stopping consumers from going to Yelp, TripAdvisor, or any of these other services, and skipping Google altogether.

The group's response to this says, "Google has an overwhelming and very durable share of the European organic search market. This market share has an important effect on conditioning user behavior, masking alternative sources of information, and raising the costs (e.g., time and effort) to switch to other sources of information.

"Using a search engine might be simple. But running a search engine is highly complex and offers many dials and levers that impact user behavior. A company like Google knows that it can degrade quality to a certain point before consumers leave in droves. Google has made an art of predicting user behavior and knowing how much change users will tolerate before switching to another organic search service."

The real question in all of this is whether or not that's a valid argument. Should Google be punished for being good at knowing what they have to do to keep people using their product while also doing things that help their product? Isn't that basically what running a business is about?

Interestingly, the relevance of Google+ is also among the FAQ with the question being: "I've read that Google+ is a failure. Is this even still relevant?"

The answer from the FAQ is that it's being used to "unify and draw data from different Google products" and that Google uses the brand to build products for local businesses.

Its interesting that this thing is apparently spearheaded by Yelp, yet it didn't announce it on its blog, and the demo and examples don't really focus on Yelp content, which is itself frequently criticized by businesses and users alike (not to mention shareholders). On its most recent earnings call, Yelp pointed out that a Google algorithm change increased U.S. Yelp traffic, though international traffic declined month-over-month despite being up 80% year-over-year.

This new effort from Yelp and its peers is focused specifically on Europe.

Should Google be forced to change the way it serves local results in the way that Focus on the User is illustrating? Should Google be able to serve the results however it wants? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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.