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Is Google’s ‘Search Bias’ Better for Consumers?

Google LocalResearchers at Harvard Business School and Columbia Law School as part of a collaboration with the Yelp data science team recently concluded that Google was harming consumers by giving preference to their own services. Would consumers be better served by getting a list of directories to choose from?

The study particular targets the local results wherein Google displays listings from Google My Business (formerly Google+ Local) ahead of the organic website results. Yelp's claim is that this practice gives priority placement to a Google service (Google My Business) that directly competes with them. They also claim this practice leads to inferior results.

While the quality of local results is certainly up for scrutiny, Google has yet to adequately address high-ranking local listings that are keyword stuffing and getting rewarded for it. We are taking the position that the listings that appear under the local results is better for consumers than directory sites.

We have been critical of this shift in ranking practices that have already pushed directory websites like Yelp ahead of naturally ranking websites of service providers (like attorneys). In August of 2013, we wrote an article titled “Google's Rankings Going Back to 2006”. In that article we said “... when a user is searching for an attorney, a directory gives them an added layer to navigate.” As directories have claimed even more top listings on the search engine results page (SERP), the top local listings have been the only place you can find real service providers after conducting a search.

However, the report does raise some interesting insights to user behavior. In a study conducted by Yelp, they asked 2,500 people to review search results. In this study, participants were more compelled to click on review sites rather than the top local listings. But the study does not say what they were searching for. A person's searching behavior varies between searches for airfare, hotels, doctors, mechanics, restaurants and lawyers.

The study claims that Google's natural algorithm chooses higher quality websites than those displayed in the local listing. It is their theory that Google has made a strategic decision to push sites higher on the local listings that would possibly not rank well below the map. However, the local listing is an organic listing and it is not independent of a website's reputation. We have tracked multiple law firms' sites as they progress from low on page one into the local lineup. That means the local listings are in fact connected to the organic listings.

Google responded to the report in a statement saying, “This isn’t new — Yelp’s been making these arguments to regulators, and demanding higher placement in search results, for the past five years. This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries.”

Yelp, along with other similar sites, is currently lobbying E.U. antitrust officials as they investigate Google. Since the report was conducted with Yelp and overwhelmingly supports Yelp (and similar services) as “what’s best for consumers,” Google's statement suggests the study has a bias of its own.

Actual law firms, stores and service providers should directly compete for space without having to compete with directories. Removing the local listings and just showing websites would give directories a considerable advantage of local businesses. Google's alleged bias toward their own local listing service is actually a bias toward real local service providers. Isn't that better for consumers?