Google appears to be backing away from a pledge that its search engine delivers unbiased results following new research that indicates the company gives itself top billing in many kinds of searches.
Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, claims he's found stark inconsistencies in the way Google treats certain search terms that match services the company provides.
Google's search results tend to vary little when a comma is added after a search term. But Edelman wrote on his blog that "for a subset of search terms, adding a trailing command yields a large change in results".
For example, a search for the term "CSCO" - the stock symbol for Cisco Systems - causes Google to display a top-ranking result leading to its own Finance service. But Edelman writes that Yahoo's Finance site received more traffic than Google's according to traffic-ranking site ComScore.
A search of more than 2,600 health-related terms also give Google's Health information service top billing. But when a comma is appended to the search term, Google is no longer on top.
Edelman concludes that the results are at odds with true organic search and indicates that Google has "hard coded" the search results to appear that way. But Google may have forgotten to include slight variations in search terms that would ensure consistent results.
"If Google staff manually specified that a given result should appear at the top of results when users search for a specific search term, they might well forget to include search term variants with appended commas," Edelman wrote.
Google has over the years denied tampering with search results, although on one occasion a top executive, Marissa Mayer, said the company did feel justified in putting itself first. On Monday, Google officials in London did not deny the practice.
"We built Google for users, not websites, and while think it's important to be transparent with websites about how we rank sites, ultimately our goal is to give users the most useful answer possible," according to an email statement. "Sometimes the most useful answer is a list of links, but other times it's a stock quote, a list of movie times, or quick answer to a question. That's what users want."
High placement is a huge advantage in search results. The top-ranked link gets at least 34 percent of resulting clicks, while the second-ranked one will get 17 percent, wrote Edelman, citing research from Chitika. It means that Google's own services can nudge out competitors.
"Any Google business that needs 'algorithmic' traffic can get it, free, in huge quantity," Edelman wrote. "Meanwhile, entrepreneurs recognise and anticipate that Google may bury their results as it favours its own services - blunting the incentive to build a business that competes with Google or competes with a service Google might plausibly develop."
Google appears to be eager to leverage other sources of information it gathers, said Mike Grehan, author of "Search Engine Marketing - The Essential Best Practice Guide".
Prior to around 2007, Google would just show blue links related to the text on web pages. But since then Google has worked on "universal search", which displayed other results such as videos, news articles, blogs and photos, Grehan said.
"Why shouldn't they provide the end user with the best result even if it means cherry picking from their own content?" Grehan said. "It's much easier and far quicker for Google to maintain and keep its own content for rapid retrieval."