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back to article Google gins search formula to favor its own services

A noted Google-watcher has assembled a convincing argument that the site's search results highly favor Google-owned services, despite repeated company claims that they are algorithmically generated and never manipulated. Harvard professor Ben Edelman and colleague Benjamin Lockwood found that Google's algorithm links to Gmail, …

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WTF?

BFD

It actually seems perfectly natural to me...

And indeed, it is the way I would like it to work. If I look up an address in the Google search box, it is most likely because I actually want to look it up on Gmaps, but I am too lazy to get to the Gmaps page.

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Stop

@it is the way I would like it to work

Unless, of course, you're running a company that is in competition with any of Google's services.

If you want to look up something on MapQuest instead, but are given a Google Map at the top of your page, which are you going to use?

Naturally the immediate response is "why should Google not promote their own products over others" but the obvious reply is "Fine, if they *admit* that they're doing it, instead of claiming that it's all fair and above board and there's no preferential tinkering going on behind the scenes!"

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RE: Graham

"Unless, of course, you're running a company that is in competition with any of Google's services."

You mean like Apple or Microsoft?

Both of whom do favour their own services more than others aswell.

They all favour their own services as Microsoft does with Internet Explorer and Hotmail and Apple does with Safari.

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Not wanting to defend them but

If I search map <place i live> the first link is a google map for the place I live. If i search for mapquest map <place i live> I get a whole bunch of other links way before the link to google maps.

I don't see why google should have to provide a link to each provider of maps unless that was what I searched for, In my case I want to get a map of a specific place, would you want to maintain how to create a map link for each provider to produce a map for a particular place? Fair enough if they come across relevant link in web page somewhere, but why should they bother

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Ermm...

"If you want to look something up on MapQuest instead", why not *search* for Mapquest? You'll get a slew of links to them and no Google Maps to be seen.

If you go onto Google and enter a search for "Maps", it's surely not all that unreasonable for them to assume that you're looking for Google Maps? MapQuest is hit number 4 if that's what you were actually looking for - not too much of a hardship to move your mouse an extra inch down the screen is it?

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WTF?

like microsoft...

...who were fined by the EU for behaving in an anti-competitive manner and forced to add a browser choice screen.

So are you're agreeing that what google are doing is wrong? Or do you think Microsoft should've been allowed to promote IE over other browsers?

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Stop

Mapquest...

If you want something on mapquest, then you should be putting mapquest into your search string... Google aren't telepathic when it comes to determining what site you want the result from...

if you add mapquest to your search string, then the mapquest item is the first returned result... along with loads of others on mapquest...

Basic Set Theory, which should be explained to all numbskulls when they can't find what they want in a search engine...

search gloucester in Google, get about 19,100,000 results with the google maps for gloucester shown first in the header result

search gloucester mapquest in google without quotes gives about 32,900 results with a mapquest link for gloucester massachussets first

search gloucester mapquest uk in google gives me about 45,200 results with a mapquest uk link first

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FAIL

@Tigra 07

I find it ironic that you call "fail" on my post when you *failed* to read the end of my post where I said:

'the obvious reply is "Fine, if they *admit* that they're doing it, instead of claiming that it's all fair and above board and there's no preferential tinkering going on behind the scenes!"'

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Boffin

@paulc

"Basic Set Theory, which should be explained to all numbskulls when they can't find what they want in a search engine..."

How about Basic Fair Competition? Why do you think Microsoft got into trouble for pushing IE at the public and now has to provide links to other browsers as well?

Why should Google not be obliged to give equal prominence to other map providers?

Why not just have a link at the top of the page to "Maps of Gloucester" which takes you to a page where there are links to GoogleMaps, Mapquest et al available giving the user a *choice* of which one they pick instead of having GoogleMaps pushed down their throats?

Google claims to be a "search engine" not "an engine for pushing Google's own services". If it is the latter, at least they should be honest about it.

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FAIL

bing

"Bing showed remarkable restraint in shilling its own services"

erm, I think Bing is just incapable of returning useful results. You can type the name of a site without the www in the front and it won't return it as a result.

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Happy

Re: bing

Yup, made me laugh. The fact that bing made no mention of Hotmail in searches for "mail" when it's (allegedly) actually the most popular service proves two things:

a) bing is not gamed and b) it's shit.

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Paris Hilton

Not linking to hotmail

That is perfectly understandable.

If I was them, I would be embarrassed about owning Hotmail, and trying to hide it.

PH, because she has nothing to hide!

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Thumb Down

Google promotes Goole?

Shockers!

MS says that F/OSS systems cost more than MS ones?

Horrors!

Yahoo ranks Yahoo higher?

Oh woes!

Business analyst discovers water is wet?

Calamities!

Is it really any surprise that Google promote their own wares? I mean, is it? All companies do this, it should come as no surprise to anyone. Maybe Google will claim that their sites are in some way "better" and so deserve higher ranks. "Better" meaning "easing for our algorithms to deal with".

That shouldn't be a stunner either. Their engineers know the algorithms, so it's a simple matter of massaging the site to match the algorithm. It amounts to the same thing, but does allow Google to state that their algorithms (not sites) are not biased.

Now if you will excuse me, I must investigate ursine religious demographics and arboreal papal defecation.

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Re: Google promotes Google?

>> Maybe Google will claim that their sites are in some way "better" and so deserve higher ranks. "Better" meaning "easing for our algorithms to deal with".

That would be fine. However, if you read the response from Google, they claim they do nothing. So which is it? Are they purposely promoting themselves over others because they feel entitled, or are they offering absolutely unbiased and neutral "organic" results?

Empirical data seems to suggest the latter, but Google denies. This is a problem with transparency with regards to their algorithms.

-dZ.

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Not necessarily better but easier for them to generate

When you search for a share price or a map, google is determine the physical thing you are looking for and as their services are well known to then it is trivial to create a link to the info.

On the other hand how can they practically create a link for every online service that say gives share prices without dumping them at a root page where you have to navigate from or link them to a page they came across in their web crawling which is likely to be potential less accurate as a first search result link.

Maybe goole could define some api for third parties to implement/register it order to be linked to reliably by google and other search engines?

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Pint

Really?! Well blow me!

Google says they are not up to anything and people believe them? How stupid are some people?!

Large corp promotes it's own stuff and denies doing so! Well that's a shocker!

If you're stupid enough to believe anything Google/Facebook/Twitter ( well any website actually! ) says at face value, you need your bumps checking!

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@DZ-Jay

No, that's not what they said at all.

"Google never artificially [favours] 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."

That's what they said.

So, there is not artificial favouring. What about natural favouring? What if the sites are coded in just such a way that the algorithms love them?

"most useful answers"? As determined by whom? What if Google considers it's own services most useful?

I am not saying that is what they are doing, but the PR speak is not without the ambiguities.

Of course, one can't ignore that this appears to be a report from the FUD-masters MS.

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Go

Wow

The web kiddies don't like your comments either.

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Black Helicopters

They can say they do nothing and yet still game the system...

Some say that Google now owns 1/3rd of the internet.

So what happens if they have a set of web servers inside Google that do nothing but serve up links to Google's own sites so that it games the search analytics in to promoting them as the top link. This way when you review the search analytics code, you find nothing. Unless you know that these servers existed, you'd never know how or why Google is on the top of their search engine results.

Posted Anon for obvious reasons...

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And problems with transparency these days

tend to lead to problems with anti-trust issues later.

If Google want their services at the top of the list, fine. Put it in the sponsored links list. They can even add an extra link if they want to preserve their revenue stream. But the search rankings need to be purely the result of unbiased algorithms.

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Anonymous Coward

Anti-competitive by default

I suspect it's probably true that the algorithms really do pick the results with google services at the top these days without any assistance but that isn't really the point.

Even if they they are given the extreme benefit of the doubt that they aren't building their services in the knowledge of what needs to be done to get a top placement by reverse engineering of their own search algorithm they'll still come out on top because they're controlling both sides of the equation.

Their search engine has been designed in such a way that searching "maps" brings up what the Google Search guys consider to be the most relevant results for people wanting maps. Someone in their services division will have the responsibility of making sure that Google Maps is as relevant as it can be for people wanting maps. So really, the only way that Google Maps shouldn't come out on top here is if there isn't a clear company message about what a 'good' map site looks like and no-one in an influential role over both parts of the business as anything else would be incompetence in one of the divisions.

If they can't help having a conflict of interests by definition, do antitrust cases get more clear cut than this?

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Go

So ...

... file the suit.

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Also, during lunch hour

Ben Edelman and colleague Benjamin

Lockwood were searching the overhead menu while standing in line in Burger Dong(tm), and were astonished to find that the country's most popular burger, Mick Ronald's quarter-size Big Mick, was not listed AT ALL.

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algorithm

Just because something is "algorithmically generated" doesn't mean it can't favour a particular offering. It could be due to 2 things: the algorithm favours that company, or the company has an in-depth knowledge of the algorithm and can thus do a better job of SEO than anyone else.

I'd be more shocked if Google DIDN'T favour Google services with the Google search engine.

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Merry-go-round

Haven't we been over this before? If I search for a generic term like 'map' then I expect to see Google's map products promoted. They'd be idiots NOT to do that and I'd be an idiot to expect them not to do that. If I searched for a specific, competing map product and Google Maps gets a leg-up to the top then that's a different matter.

But even if they're not doing this, let's think for a minute. If Google's services weren't at the top, where would they be? Second? Fifth? On page 10? If Google's developers can't write Google's sites so that the Google search engine picks them up efficiently, then something's wrong.

So either they're deliberately promoting their own products and nobody really cares, or their own products are naturally appearing at or near* the top and nobody cares. These guys sniffing the barrel of the smoking gun apparently do care, so I'll leave it to them to find out.

* In my quick test, "email" actually sent Hotmail to the top with GMail winning the silver medal in second place. Maybe it's because my 'hl' parameter defaults to Spain? The other searches in this article perform as described.

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Anonymous Coward

Yep

I was thinking that too. Seems to be flame bait to me. Every search engine does this, but few have as many fanboys as Google.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/15/google_accused_of_hard_coding_own_results_into_search/

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Boffin

Surprising Results

Not.

If you hold the keys to all the doors, what else can be expected?

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FAIL

I recently did my own little study on this...

Having read a similar story elsewhere, I researched this myself. I noted that if you search for something specific, like "map" in Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Guess what? The first search result in each one is their own maps. A search for almost anything else is rewarded with each site giving their own version first place. Something I'd like to point out, though, is that while searching for, say, "CSCO", results in a graph of said stock, only Google gives direct links to other sites. Bing and Yahoo leave other sites to the links in the actual search below.

Is Google really doing so little evil today that something like this is big news?

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Try searching for . . .

. . . Bears and Popes.

Same sort of result

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Unhappy

Re: that guy

"Naturally the immediate response is "why should Google not promote their own products over others"

Well, why shouldn't Microsoft only allow you to install IE, and then have IE block everything *but* Bing? Or heck, Why shouldn't Comcast block out all competing sites? I mean, it is their network right?

Better yet, why should your government allow you to know about anything happening in say the middle east. After all you are an American right?

No? Well screw you then! Should've been born in the land of the free.

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Mmm...

I think the big issue here is with Google not just saying "yeah, and?". After all, it is their search engine, they ought to be free to promote their own products. Before anybody down votes me for saying this, consider Amazon promoting it's Kindle, perhaps a little too often for my liking, but not only makes no mention of other ebook readers, but is necessarily incompatible with them. There are many more examples, such as you wouldn't expect Asda to promote Tesco products and services, if anything it would be a "look how much cheaper WE are". I can understand that if you're offering a paid service that is being undermined by one of Google's offerings you might be a little unhappy, but that is life, evolve and adapt, don't wave the legal stick. An example of failure to adapt could be the British car industry. The Germans, Japs, French... built better cars. Hell, what nationality is Gene Hunt's baby?

But the thing that is going to hurt Google is their not just coming straight out with the truth - something of a pattern in recent times...

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Anonymous Coward

Yeah, but...

When Amazon advertise the kindle at me, I can see that it's an advert, it's right there in a separate box saying "buy me!", when Google promote their services it's not obviously an advert.

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Dead Vulture

I liked this story better when it was called

"Google accused of hard-coding own links in search"

Reported by The Register on 11/15/2010.

C'mon Reg.

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Stop

Hmmmmmmmmmmmm

Well I'm sure I'm not the first to experiment, but sure enough, a search on Google for "mail" does indeed return Gmail as the first result.

BUT... try doing a search for "free e-mail". I get two paid ads at the top, one for GMX and one for Microsoft's Live.com mail (akla Hotmail). Then the search results return, in order:

- Hotmail

- GMX

- Mail.com

- Yahoo

and several other links... In fact NO GOOGLE/GMAIL AT ALL on the first page of links, including no "paid" ads to Google mail!!! So on the basis of my completely unscientific analysis, I conclude that if the Google algorithms are fixed, they're fixed in a pretty lousy way. But then that wouldn't make much of a story would it....???

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Your own test proves they are screwing with the algorithms.

First off, living in the US, if I type in the word "mail" the first result I expect to see is for the US Post Office, not GMail, because it is a constitutionally sanctioned government monopoly. Not sure what the post is called in Old Blighty, but I expect their result SHOULD be different and whatever service it is ought to be at the top.

If I were to type in email, I would expect GMail to be somewhere in the first 10 results. I would similarly expected Hotmail/Live, and Yahoo to be in the top 10. I expect all three services would also be in the top 10 if I were to type in "free email." Why? Because I have free accounts with all three of them.

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Boffin

Non-exclusive

"A noted Google-watcher has assembled a convincing argument that the site's search results highly favor Google-owned services, despite repeated company claims that they are algorithmically generated and never manipulated."

"Algorithmic" and "unbiased" are not mutually exclusive. They are not even based on the same measurement. "Algorithmic" simply means an internally consistent (generally automated) process is involved. It says absolutely nothing of the validity or impartiality of that process. So far as I can tell, there is no discussion here, because the two sides are talking about completely different things.

The argument about click-through rates is poorly thought out as well, as that is certainly not the only (possibly not even the first) metric by which potential results should be judged. Furthermore, the click-through rates quoted by the researchers do not reflect the search engines' click-through rates, but those supplied by third parties. Based on the information in the report, the researchers simply assumed that the click-through data was appropriate and relevant to the search engines' algorithms. However, without further evidence, an equally valid conclusion is that the third-party data does not accurately reflect the search engines' internal data -- and given that the third-party data is by definition specific subsets of search engine data, the potential for bias in them is strong.

In short, search engines are black boxes, the companies that run them intentionally keep them that way, and as long as they remain that way, research like this only reflects guesses that may or may not reflect reality. The guesses may seem intelligent and logical, but without the core search engine data, they are inherently unverifiable.

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"Algorithmic" and "unbiased" are not mutually exclusive

Exactly.

The algorithm can include logic that says something along the lines of..

if domain of site contains "Google" then: increase ranking by 10

and its still an algorithm..

The real issue here is that ranking search results is an incredibly grey area and its not clear what the "correct" or optimum result is.

It's not a problem like sorting, or finding the shortest path where the optimum solution is well defined.

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If you expected otherwise...

Pimping their own products? Who would have seen THAT coming? I'm surprised Microsoft doesn't do it on the same scale as Yahoo! or Google.

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Stop

Are we forgetting something?

It's a search engine, not an OS, not a piece of physical hardware which would take considerable time to either remove or configure. The competition is a but a click away.

What's more, Google is not receiving any money to list a website as part of their general results. It's an indexing service - it's free. I don't recall people suing BT because their phone number doesn't appear on page 1 of the phone book. The algorithm is for users to find what they're looking for faster, not for companies to game in order to pick off the least savvy consumers who simply click on the first result.

The day Google force manufacturers to make their search engine the only search engine on my computers, make me sign some kind of upfront EULA to use their search and prevent my browser from accessing other search engines - then I'll support a competition enquiry. But this is up there with suing McDonalds for getting fat.

I've started using Blekko for half my search results as Google's gone a bit crap recently. I don't think governments or newspaper tycoons quite get the nature of the web. In a matter of weeks people can switch from using one service to another turning from a popular community to a barren wasteland - destroying both profits and shareholders dreams in the process.

What's the use of prosecuting a popular website today if it could be gone by tomorrow before the investigation even gets off the ground?

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@AC

"What's more, Google is not receiving any money to list a website as part of their general results. It's an indexing service - it's free."

Err, no. You see they sell ads, and adwords etc in a supposedly fair auction then got and stick their own services at the top of the search. Whilst I would expect to see Googles own services listed somewhere on the search page (maybe to one side?) I don't expect them to cheat/juice the results when they are also charging people for the ability to get higher up the rankings. They are a monopoly in search and by doing this they are abusing that monopoly and even had a VP admit it publicly. Your rant about them not forcing you to do anything is utterly besides the point.

Are you from the other side of the pond? I only ask because the failure of the Government over there to deal with monopolists and the outright fear and hatred of "regulation" usually yields such "why don't the EU keep their noses out" type posts on such matters. There are those that "get it" but an awful lot that don't. I'm not a great fan of regulation but I appreciate it when it's used to level the playing field between monopolists and their fucked-over, deceived, and abused customers.

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Anonymous Coward

@Mark 65

re: my comment, "general results" - I thought the article was discussing their search algorithms? Not their advertising model - which is a different matter altogether.

"I don't expect them to cheat/juice the results when they are also charging people for the ability to get higher up the rankings."

Really? They charge websites to be indexed?

Who's ranting? Obviously you were so enraged at my comment you were unable to slow down and actually read it correctly.

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No

they charge websites to appear at the top of the search results. It's the display bit you pay for not the indexing.

And you don't really think Google's ad business would be as profitable without piggybacking on their search results, do you?

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Go

And ...

... there's no antitrust violations either.

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Pint

What a delightfully interpretable phrase:

"search results are ranked in a way that provides users with the most useful answer"

here "most useful" means:

i) to the user, we have scientific analysis to demonstrate relative usefulness.

ii) to the user, we have confidence in our products, we know are services are the best, so they go at the top.

iii) to us, whatever benefits the company.

Take your pick.

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Headmaster

I know the difference between "are" and "our"

but I'm sometimes too lazy to proof-read.

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Unhappy

'three times more often than other search engines'

So maybe the other three got their algorithms wrong?

In any event, Google makes no charges for this search function, so I have no problems with any bias - real or imagined.

If it was a paid service things would be different.

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Anonymous Coward

Well this is also an algorithm...

"if query == maps ; then insert google maps somewhere at the top ; fi"

So yeah... they can with a straight face say that it's algorithmicaly generated.

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WTF?

mail”, “email”, “maps”, or “video

No offence to the guy running the "test", but what would you expect to come back when you search for any of these 4 terms?

Email

Maps

Video

If you did NOT find the Google offerings at the top you would be surprised.

Maybe Microsoft should make a decent alternative and then see how things change.

(well they may not change, but still Googles apps are far far better so who cares if the results are biased)

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Boffin

Try it

Search for "email" on Google, the first hit is a link to hotmail. Ditto if you search for "e-mail".

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Anonymous Coward

Shareholder value

... will trump honesty every time.

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