An article published on Monday by IDG News Service poses this question in its headline: "Does Google Favor Its Own Sites in Search Results?" Rather than being rhetorical, the headline seems to suggest that there's actually some uncertainty about the matter. Which is weird, because if you read Jeremy Kirk's article -- along with the blog he cites, written by a Harvard Business School professor who conducted his own research into Google search results -- there's only one valid conclusion: Google is hard-coding search results to ensure its pages are turning up at the top.
In his post, "Hard-Coding Bias in Google "Algorithmic" Search Results," HBS professor Benjamin Edelman nails the search giant. One excerpt: Search for a stock ticker (example: CSCO), and the three most prominent links on the page -- the large-type all-caps ticker symbol, the large price chart, and the left-most details link -- will all take you to Google Finance. Google Finance isn't the most popular finance site; according to ComScore, Yahoo Finance claims that title, and indeed ComScore puts Google Finance in position #60 (as of April 2010). Nonetheless, the three most prominent links all promote Google's in-house finance service. How convenient! For Google, that is; for users, not so much. Does any of this really matter? Well, yeah. Research shows that the top link on a search will get about one-third of all clicks, while the No. 2 link gets 17 percent. That's more than half of all clicks for the first two returns alone. Wouldn't it be great for Google if its own properties consistently showed up at the top of search results? What a wondrous and fortuitous turn of events that would be! Despite Google's numerous claims to the contrary, it's pretty obvious based on Edelman's research that the "Don't Be Evil" company is running a rigged search game. Which should surprise exactly no one. Like any corporation, Google's actions are based almost entirely on self-interest. You might say, "Well, it wouldn't be in Google's interest to provide search results that are biased in its favor because if users found out they weren't getting the objectively best search results, they'd be upset." To which I would respond, "Really? And how are they going to know?" The truth is, with the exception of people like Edelman, no one's drilling down into, testing or analyzing Google search results. The only thing that can keep Google honest is valid competition, and that doesn't exist. Google has maintained a remarkably consistent search market share in the range of 65% to 68% for several years. It owns search. And none of its current "competitors" -- Yahoo, Microsoft's Bing, AOL, Ask.com -- will ever threaten its supremacy. Only two things can undermine Google -- complacency and an anti-trust action by the federal government. Neither are on the horizon.
Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.