The economics of Internet content pivot around advertising — paying for the right eyeballs and clicks — which imposes an implicit bias on all that is displayed. If regulators are going to go after Google for tailoring search results, should they go after publishers for using audience targeting or tailored homepage content to users?

Perhaps they should slap Amazon on the wrist for offering up ‘next logical purchase’ items that differ between buyers. While there is some validity in preventing a dominant player from acting like a monopoly, wrapping the critique in a consumer welfare coat is a poor argument.

Recent studies into the way Google presents search results have once again caused consumers to question whether Google abandoned its ‘don’t be evil’ mandate in search of greater profits. Or is it just trying to make a buck fair and square?

Over recent months, Google’s trouble with EU regulators over alleged violation of antitrust rules has made front page news. The European Competition Commission filed antitrust charges against Google in April this year, pivoting around the assertion that Google’s decision to place paid search listings at the top of search results means Google is manipulating search to grow it’s advertising business — and that by doing so it is harming competitors and consumers alike.

This isn’t the first time the search giant has faced antitrust proceedings. Numerous complaints of anti-competitive behaviour have been lodged over the last five years in the EU, and in 2011 Google fronted court in Ohio to battle (and win) an antitrust complaint in which it was alleged to be giving preferential results to Google-owned entities in its search results.

Fanning the flames of the latest allegations, Columbia Law School’s Tim Wu, (pictured below) a former Google ally and respected Internet theorist, has released a paper asserting that Google’s decision to bias search results towards paid listings has serious antitrust and consumer wellbeing implications.

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In the paper, called “Is Google degrading Search? Consumer harm from universal search” co-authored with Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca, Wu is strongly critical of Google’s actions, claiming that rather than enhancing the relevance of results, the implementation of paid search prioritisation contradicts the organic ‘best results’ rankings of Google’s famously neutral Pagerank algorithm.

This, Wu and Luca claim, means the ‘product enhancement’ of paid search prioritisation is not pro-competitive as Google asserts, and may in fact have negative welfare effects on the end consumer. This is an attention-grabbing claim, but there are some troubling things about the paper’s logic and provenance that dilute the veracity of its claims.

First, the paper makes some dangerous leaps of logic — most profoundly its fallacious assumption that just because a business or site ranks highly on Pagerank it implicitly offers a ‘better’ product or service to the consumer. We respectfully suggest that the quality of one’s SEO is not necessarily indicative of one’s ability to provide superior service, but more an indication of how SEO-savvy one’s web design agency is.

Second, Wu and Luca are not exactly operating from a position of neutrality — the research around which the paper is based was sponsored by rival search and listings provider Yelp, which most certainly has a vested interest in seeing Google’s dominance taken down a notch.

It’s clear that Google’s near monopoly and willingness to use its dominance to its own advantage has ruffled both regulatory and commercial feathers. While the regulatory furore is easily articulated and understood as being a matter of legislative non-compliance, the wider issues raised in Wu’s paper — specifically that Google’s choice to favour paid content is both damaging its competitors and reducing the welfare of consumers — is worth further interrogation.

Just Google undertow

On the surface, the indignation is around a dominant player making it harder for smaller players to compete. However, one suspects that there is an undercurrent of worry as to just how smart and subtle Google can be in its search ranking bias. If organic rankings can be over-ridden for commercial ends, might Google also start adjusting the Pagerank algorithm in other ways to invisibly alter the reality of the Internet?

When it comes to the idea that search bias may cause harm to consumers, the paper seems to have nanny state inclinations. With all due respect to Professor Wu’s impeccable academic credentials, his position on this matter suggests much time spent in the ivory towers of academia, and little in the dog-eat-dog world of technology commercialisation.

Concerns about intentional bias and consumer harm have validity from a social equity/ consumer care perspective, but Wu and Luca miss a critical point: it’s not just Google, and it’s not a new thing.

Google is, and has been for the last 15 years, a viable and at times hugely profitable commercial entity. To be profitable, Google has to sell things — like priority search rankings, advertising and local search listings. The approach is very similar to that of advertorial and paid content in media sites, and to its credit Google makes no effort to obfuscate this.

Wu’s research brings to the forefront a consumer expectation from the early, non-commercial days of the Internet that content would be neutral, raw and truthful, and assumes that consumers still have this expectation today. While this may be true of certain demographics, in today’s highly commercialised digital ecosystem it is improbable that most Internet users are so naïve as to expect commercially produced content or services to be neutral of bias.

About the Author

Anna Russell is a director at Polynomial, a Sydney-based analytics and strategy consultancy. Polynomial works with businesses to drive value from technology investment and develop effective data driven strategies for marketing and customer engagement

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