"Google it." The simple phrase is basically the default answer whenever someone you know is searching for information. But, can you really trust Google to deliver the best results? A new research paper argues that Google is manipulating its search results to prop up its own products at the expense of competitors like Yelp. If these claims are true, it could be grounds for legal action against the search giant.
The paper was written by former FTC advisor Tim Wu. It suggests that Google is delivering an inferior product to consumers because it doesn't deliver the best results available in local searches. The study was prompted by a browser plug-in called "Focus on the User" built by Yelp.
The local reviews company — and longstanding Google adversary — built a browser plugin meant to recreate Google’s organic search page stripped of its OneBox, the listings and map pairing Google began inserting in 2009 for searchers that triggers local results.
Using data from its plug-in, Yelp found that a test group of consumers was 45% more likely to click through on its "Focus on the User" map than on the standard Google search results map. Yelp and Wu both argue that this is evidence that Google isn't delivering the results most relevant to users.
Google is already facing an antitrust investigation in Europe for similar complaints, and this new study could prompt an FTC investigation here in the U.S., Wu told Re/code.
“I would say that there is criteria for action suggested by evidence of consumer harm,” he said. “The door is open.”
Google hasn't commented on the study, but it could make several arguments against the validity of the study. First, Google could claim that Yelp's decision to just focus on clicks is too vague, because that's not the only indication of user engagement.
Plus, the company’s structured data absorbs several signals in local search, like the accuracy of a business location on a map, that may be absent from Yelp’s plugin. Respondents may have clicked more on Yelp’s map, but that doesn’t mean they arrived at what they were looking for.
Additionally, Yelp paid Wu for the study. While this isn't unusual and Wu insists it didn't affect his work, Google could argue that there's some bias involved.