Richard Waters raises some good questions in his post yesterday to the Financial Times’ Tech Blog, as he investigates Google’s practice of placing its own products at the top of its search result pages.
Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, concludes that Google’s practice of overriding its normal algorithmic results to put a Google answer first is now common. He experimented with a real estate query and “found that nearly half the screen real estate on a search results page was taken up with Google services.” (And we at FairSearch.org have seen this before with Google Maps, Google News and Google Products.)
When asked about preferential display of Google products, Amit Singhal, head of search quality at Google responded: “Our tendency tends to be, when a [Google] product has become popular with its users, then it’s OK to show it.”
And this is where it gets tricky. Waters asks: “Is it only a tendency, what does ‘popular’ mean, and what’s the cause and effect here – do services only prove their popularity after they appear at the top of the search results? And does it matter if a rival service might actually have produced a better overall result for the user?”
All very good questions. And soon, if the Justice Department does not move to challenge Google’s proposed bid of ITA Software, the same troubling questions will become very real with regards to Google’s plans to use the acquisition to advantage its own travel product over ITA’s current customers.