An algorithm change Google probably only used in a limited test roughly eight years ago is apparently the top story in tech this morning. It will likely give Google’s competitors more talking points, but probably won’t make a lot of difference in any other way.
The Wall Street Journal got its hands on a “previously undisclosed report by staffers at the FTC that reveals new details about how Google Inc. manipulated search results to favor its own services over rivals’ , even when they weren’t most relevant for users.” Here’s the paper’s take on that particular element of the report.
If you want better context, you’ll find that in Danny Sullivan’s article, which includes his longtime experience covering the search industry, as well as some background information from Google itself.
The headlines surrounding the story would make you think a bombshell has been dropped, but once you start digging, it becomes far less dramatic. Here’s the dramatic part:
One way Google favored its own results was to change its ranking criteria. Google typically ranks sites based on measures like the number of links that point to a site, or how often users click on the site in search results.
But Marissa Mayer, who was then a Google vice president, said Google didn’t use click-through rates to determine the ranking for its own specialized-search sites, because they would rank too low, according to the staff report. Ms. Mayer is now chief executive of Yahoo Inc. A Yahoo spokeswoman didn’t immediately make her available for comment.
Instead, Google would “automatically boost” its own sites for certain specialized searches that otherwise would favor rivals, the FTC found. If a comparison-shopping site was supposed to rank highly, Google Product Search was placed above it. When Yelp was deemed relevant to a user’s search query, Google Local would pop up on top of the results page, the staff wrote.
As Sullivan notes, this is the most “alarming” part of what the Journal has uncovered, though I can’t say I’m particularly alarmed.
As mentioned in the intro, we’re talking about an old report about an algorithm change Google probably only used in a limited test roughly eight years ago. The report itself is from 2012, before the FTC reached a settlement with Google without pursuing legal action.
As explained in Sullivan’s article, the change Google implemented happened in 2007, and was likely only part of a limited test. We’re talking the days of Froogle. You’d be forgiven if you don’t know that that means because Google hasn’t used that name since 2007. Also, Google maintains it was mainly about not sending users to other search results pages (as in those on other sites), because people don’t want to search for something only to be taken to another page of search results once they’ve already landed on one page of search results. Sullivan writes:
It seems that in 2006 through 2007, Google decided for some reason that it wanted to demote comparison shopping sites as part of a “diversity” effort. My guess is that it thought listing actual merchants and product pages would be better. However, Google was also making moves at that time to give its then “Froogle” shopping search engine more visibility. It was something that Google raters, people that Google hires to evaluate the quality of its search results, didn’t like.
Again, it’s unclear if Google did this with live search results that everyone saw or a test service that only raters used. There are suggestions in the footnote that it was a limited test. Regardless, it remains alarming that it specifically went after competitors to create an algorithm designed to demote them, regardless of whether that was in the name of “diversity” or not.
As he notes, Google has indicated repeatedly in the past that it doesn’t blacklist competitors for competitive reasons. Maybe they haven’t told the whole truth (keeping mind that this was still likely only implemented in a limited test). Maybe Google does need to be called on that. Either way, none of this can really be looked at as something that’s directly related to Google’s current practices post FTC antitrust investigation (not to mention the one in Europe) unless they’re found to be doing it now.
Yelp (which is specifically mentioned in the report) has been one of the biggest critics of Google when it comes to stuff like this, yet the service is all over Google results. Here’s a quote from CEO Jeremy Stoppelman from last summer:
“I think obviously, we’ve been competing with Google over many, many years now quite successfully. And we think that by focusing on great content and building, fostering, growing communities continues to be the right strategy. And in fact, where we have the largest communities in the U.S., we’ve seen actually an uptick as a result of the recent Google algorithmic change. They’re constantly making changes and alterations, some of which has been in the media. And most of that really, on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t have a material effect. And so I think fundamentally, we feel that everything is still in good shape. Consumers are flocking to our content. You can see that in our overall traffic growth, and so we’re just going to continue to focus on community building and content quality.”
Of course there’s always that whole “Competition is a click away” thing too.
I guess what I’m mainly driving at here is that while the report is mildly interesting, readers should try to keep things in perspective. I’m sure FairSearch and Google’s other competitors will have a field day, but at the end of the day, I really don’t see this as incredibly earth shattering. Cue comments accusing me of working for Google.
Update: I thought it might also be useful to revisit some quotes from the FTC from when it announced its settlement with Google:
“The evidence the FTC uncovered through this intensive investigation prompted us to require significant changes in Google’s business practices. However, regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the Commission,” said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the Commission. “Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.”
The FTC said in a press release:
“The FTC conducted an extensive investigation into allegations that Google had manipulated its search algorithms to harm vertical websites and unfairly promote its own competing vertical properties, a practice commonly known as “search bias.” In particular, the FTC evaluated Google’s introduction of “Universal Search” – a product that prominently displays targeted Google properties in response to specific categories of searches, such as shopping and local – to determine whether Google used that product to reduce or eliminate a nascent competitive threat. Similarly, the investigation focused on the allegation that Google altered its search algorithms to demote certain vertical websites in an effort to reduce or eliminate a nascent competitive threat. According to the Commission statement, however, the FTC concluded that the introduction of Universal Search, as well as additional changes made to Google’s search algorithms – even those that may have had the effect of harming individual competitors – could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google’s product and the experience of its users. It therefore has chosen to close the investigation.”
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