Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Google Skewing Results To Favor Google

In March, the Wall Street Journal covered "[a] previously undisclosed report by staffers at the Federal Trade Commission [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."

In a lengthy investigation, staffers in the FTC’s bureau of competition found evidence that Google boosted its own services for shopping, travel and local businesses by altering its ranking criteria and “scraping” content from other sites. It also deliberately demoted rivals. For example, the FTC staff noted that Google presented results from its flight-search tool ahead of other travel sites, even though Google offered fewer flight options. Google’s shopping results were ranked above rival comparison-shopping engines, even though users didn’t click on them at the same rate, the staff found.

When confronted about the skewed results, Google spokespeople were adamant that they were not "cooking" the results, saying “[w]e regularly change our search algorithms and make over 500 changes a year to help our users get the information they want. We created search for users, not websites—and that focus has driven our improvements over the last decade.”

It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that a for-profit company that competes with other sites to offer the best searches would skew results in its favor. What is surprising is Google's insistence that it is not skewing results. While this isn't true for all types of searches, it is important for researchers to understand how they returned certain results to be able to truly analyze the reputability of a resource. If an academic uses Google to find information (which, I would presuppose that most do), it is enlightening to know who sponsors the website with the supporting information or what types of websites are promoting the information to make a judgment call about the biases, for example, inherent in the information.

As the WSJ articles goes on to note, "[o]ne 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."

Ultimately, the FTC found that Google's efforts paid off. It said Google’s maneuvers reduced Web traffic to rivals, and increased traffic to Google sites.

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