Economy

Researchers: Google, Yahoo! Search Results Favor Their Own Services

Two Harvard professors have just released a study they say shows that two big search engines are returning biased search results.

The Register in the U.K. reports:

Harvard professor Ben Edelman and colleague Benjamin Lockwood found that Google's algorithm links to Gmail, YouTube, and other house brands three times more often than other search engines. Search terms such as “mail”, “email”, “maps”, or “video” all yield top results featuring Google's services, they found. The practice, which Yahoo! was also found to engage in – albeit less blatantly – puts the search engines' interests ahead of users' need for unbiased data about the most useful sites on the web, they warned.

“Google asks the public to believe that algorithms rule, and that no bias results from its partnerships, growth aspirations, or related services,” they wrote in a report posted on Wednesday. “We are skeptical.”

An argument could be made that the search engines yield those results because that's what users really want. But the researchers looked at information about what users are bound to click on and found that many times users preferred competing sites not listed first.

As this table shows, researchers found that Bing — Microsoft's search engine — was by far the more honest.

Edelman and Lockwood say that much like Microsoft was accused of unfairly using its Windows dominance to win market share for programs like Word and Internet Explorer, Google, too, can be accused of using its search dominance to advance its other products.

"In the long run, just as Windows source code and APIs are subject to outside scrutiny, we expect that search algorithms will require similar external review," they write. "Last month the European Commission announced an investigation of biased results at Google, including 'alleged preferential placement of Google's own services.' We credit that effort, and our analysis suggests that the EC's investigation will indeed reveal that Google has intentionally put its own links first."

Update at 6:15 p.m.: Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich sent this statement in response to the study:

Mr. Edelman is a longtime paid consultant for Microsoft, so it’s no surprise that he would construct a highly biased test that his sponsor would pass and that Google would fail.  Google never artificially favors our own services in our organic web search results, and we perform extensive user testing to ensure that search results are ranked in a way that provides users with the most useful answer.

Edelman does list Microsoft as one of his clients. In his e-mail to us, Kovacevich also accuses the researchers of using search phrases that got them the results they want. For example, they say, searching for "maps" will lead you Google Maps but using "directions" will lead you Mapquest.

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