Today’s EU competition inquiry into Google seeks to protect companies against Google. Consumers, not companies, should be the real beneficiary of such inquiries. The mantra of, ‘Do no evil’, and Google’s reputation for providing unbiased search results have brainwashed the population into believing that it is a source of absolute truth. They don’t know better and need to be protected.
It is very common for companies to complain about Google and their power over search queries. In the UK, about 90% of Internet searches are over Google and many of those searches are made by people looking to buy things. If a company moves from the first result for a search to a lower ranking, or even worse, off the first page of results it can have very significant implications for revenue and profit of the business affected. Google meanwhile goes to great lengths to obscure the exact algorithms that are used to decide the ranking of results as companies game the results.
This is an ongoing problem for both Google and the companies that wish to get found and will only get worse as more business is conducted online. Today, the European Commission announced it is looking into complaints about anti-competitive practice from Google after complaints by Foundem, ejustice.fr, Ciao. Obviously Google deny any wrong doing.
“Though each case raises slightly different issues, the question they ultimately pose is whether Google is doing anything to choke off competition or hurt our users and partners, this is not the case.” Julia Holtz, Google Senior Competition Lawyer.
From the consumer’s perspective however, not too many people will worry too much about whether, for example, MoneySupermarket or Confused.com provide the route to home insurance. These businesses are little more than search engine optimised websites that make money by providing leads for the same insurance companies that offer end users the same deal.
The bigger issue for me is that very few people know that Google’s search results are highly dependent on whether Google gets paid for a result. (And here I mean ‘normal people’, not geeks).
The mantra of, ‘Do no evil’, and Google’s reputation for providing unbiased search results have brainwashed the population into believing that it is a source of absolute truth.
If you do a search in Google because I want information on a consumer product, ‘Toshiba TG01’ for example, you are offered 10,200,000 results. Frankly however, only the first few count as if you can find what you want on page one, why go further?
There are 19 links from Google for ‘Toshiba TG01’ shown on my first screen of results, at least 15 are links that are there because they are sponsored, (top and right), or make money for Google directly (anything under the Shopping results for toshiba tg01 link).
I don’t have any problem with people making money but I do think the results system should be more transparent. I have just asked 6 people in Starbucks to show me the ‘paid results’ on this screen.
- One stated confidently that Google doesn’t charge to show results.
- Three identified the sponsored links on the right hand side as paid for.
- One identified the sponsored links at the top as paid for.
- Only one thought that most of them were making money for Google in one way or another.
Interestingly, the most sophisticated of these respondents was happy for Google to make some money along the way and understood the rules of the game. The individual who didn’t think Google makes money from search said, ‘If that was true, I wouldn’t trust them’.
I recognise that this is not a proper survey, but it has made me think about how search could evolve.
I believe that if there was more transparency in the results – simple icons showing how the search engine is remunerated for results, consumers would be more trusting of the results. At the moment, it seems like Google is trading on its past reputation for honesty and openness that is just not deliverable in today’s far more sophisticated and complex web.