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Google's dominance in search stems from a lot of things. One of the biggest contributors to that dominance is the perception that Google's algorithm is capable of delivering relevant, high-quality results. Those results, Google has repeatedly told the world, are as objective and unbiased as is possible.

But is that really true? According to Harvard Business School assistant professor Ben Edelman, the answer is 'no'.

Edelman, of course, is well-known for his work on spyware/adware, online privacy and affiliate marketing fraud, and now he's taking on Google's algorithm. The conclusion he's drawn from his investigation: Google hard-codes results.

To start, Edelman looks at search results that seem to favor Google's own properties, such as Google Finance and Google Health. Despite the fact that neither service is very popular vis-à-vis their respective competitors, Google's search results often favor them. Edelman explains why he believes this is the result of 'hard-coding bias':

In general, adding a comma to the end of a search query does not yield predictable changes in algorithmic search results. Try it for yourself using my comma test search tool. Notice: core algorithmic results change little or none when a comma is added -- though ads and rich result boxes (such maps, products, and videos) often vary from search to search.

But for a subset of search terms, adding a trailing comma yields a large change in results. Add a comma to a finance term, for example requesting CSCO, rather than CSCO. Suddenly, the prominent Google Finance links disappear. Same for health keywords: Search for acne, rather than acne, and Google no longer features Google Health.

Oops.

Of course, it's not really surprising that Google is favoring properties like Google Finance and Google Health in its SERPs. As Edelman himself notes, Google's Marissa Meyer has previously admitted that Google's policy is to promote its own properties.

But perhaps most disturbing is Edelman's belief that Google is the favoritism he sees benefitting Google partners:

For example, in the realm of travel planning, searches like bos to sfo yield links to Google's preferred partners. Google can use these links to play favorites -- offering valuable traffic to selected sites in exchange for their loyalty or other benefits. Meanwhile, Google's preferred placements are strikingly opaque to users. In the screenshot at right, clicking the prominent top-of-page "Flights from Boston, MA to San Francisco, CA" link takes users to Expedia, as does pressing Enter while in the "departing" or "returning" textboxes. But nothing in the on-screen listing gives any indication that the "Flights" link or Enter key send a user to Expedia. And if Google instead began to send such users to another site instead, there's nothing Expedia could do to stand in the way.

To be fair to Google, some of the bias Edelman sees in this area might fall under the category of 'splitting hairs' as not all of these results are part of the organic SERPs. But that doesn't mean that there isn't bias here, and when one looks at the big picture and assumes he's caught Google red handed, it's hard to disagree with Edelman's conclusion that "Google has made inaccurate representations to the public including to users, publishers, advertisers, investors, and regulators." Notwithstanding Mayer's past candor, Google has and does hold itself out to the public as an unbiased arbiter of information exchange on the internet.

The big question, of course, is whether any of this really matters. While Google Finance and Google Health, for instance, may significantly trail their top competitors, they do provide much the same information. From this perspective, one has to ask: how often are consumers actually harmed when there appears to be hard-coding bias? If this apparent hard-coding bias is real, there's obvious reason for concern on paper, but I suspect that much of that concern may be overblown in the real world, and there are certainly bigger flaws consumers should worry about when it comes to Google.

Patricio Robles

Published 16 November, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Daniel Phillips

Daniel Phillips, E-Commerce Manager at HJ Hall

There are a number of inaccuracies in Edelman's conclusions. For example, the 'comma test search' affects lots of general searches. If I try it with 'lcd tv' or 'used cars' I see a change in the results. This is probably directed to filters put in place for the 'brand update' where sites Google deems worthy are boosted on specific general searches relevant to them (the usefulness of this to searchers is another debate altogether). The introduction of the comma can bypass the 'filter' Google has put in place. As for the rest of the 'findings', if the results are relevant or useful to searchers, then they'll go elsewhere. If the results remain relevant, people will continue to use Google.

over 5 years ago

Tim Akinnusi

Tim Akinnusi, Non-executive director at Glasshouse Consulting

Interesting perspective...but I fail to see how Google bias is affecting consumer search in way that hasn’t been done in the past. In my opinion, it all depends on how knowledgeable the users is in their use of the search engines, as this will determine how discerning the users is about the authentic nature of the search results. Google bias has been around for some time now in the form of paid search, ad words and sponsored links, which are strategically positioned in areas on the users search results window, as part of the organic search results. So yes, Google bias has been around and will continue to be...it will simple evolve as time goes.   

over 5 years ago

Niranjan Sridharan

Niranjan Sridharan, Digital Auditor at ABC

@ Edward. Lol.. I have never laughed so much before. Thank you so much for the insights. I wonder how so called 'academic experts' get so many basic facts wrong.

over 5 years ago

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Michael Martinez

Google is parsing query terms with multiple algorithms, and it's obvious that if you append a comma to the end of any term that would normally kick in a secondary result injection such as a health insert or a finance insert that the comma prevents that from happening.

There is nothing "manual" about this at all.  Professor Edelman is simply misinterpreting what is happening because he doesn't understand the complexity of search engine technology.

over 5 years ago

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Ben Edelman

Hi folks --

Thanks for your interest.  To those of you who think I don't know about the functions Google calls "Onebox" and the prospect of multiple algorithms, let me assure you that's not the case.  But I stand by my claim that what Google is doing is importantly different from what Google claims to be doing (including in the ten claims I quote and link).  Google asks the public to conclude that Google's high market share in search is of reduced concern because Google selects sites using an "algorithm" that is, purportedly, fair and evenhanded.  In fact we all know Google puts its own services at the top, systematically -- in part because Google has programmed its algorithm to do so, but also, by all indications & as I demonstrate, becuase manual overrides intentionally achieve exactly that result.

Are these practices of concern?  If all search users were as sophisticated as folks here, perhaps not.  But the reality is, many folks aren't think about possible bias in the information they receive.  A diversity of providers, in all media sectors, would help users receive a diversity of views, and reduce the dominance of any single view.  Conversely, when one firm becomes dominant in a gateway function like search, there seems to be ample evidence that that dominance can restrict competition in other areas.  That is, and should be, cause for concern.

over 5 years ago

Adam Tudor

Adam Tudor, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at The Black Hole

The worry here is not so much the effect on final results, value delivered to the searcher etc - more the fact that Google have stated many times that this does not take place, when it can be seen that it does. Saying that it's not a big deal as it doesn't make much difference to the end user doesn't really excuse the company for doing such things.

It's highly unlikely that they'll respond on the matter.  It may only be a small thing, but before you know these things can escalate.  Again, it's another issue that brings into doubt their entire 'motto' if you will. 

over 5 years ago

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Web Spiders

This post is quite an eye-opener. Well this is just Edelman's perspective. It is understandable that Google will be biased towards their own properties, but on a macro level, i don't think consumers should feel insecure and feel the SERP's are biased. As one of the above commenter rightly pointed out..if the Google search results are relevant, there is no reason for people opting for something else.

over 5 years ago

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publius

The biggest problem with Google is that they favor .gov and .edu domains, which are also funded by governments. In a world where the socialist countries are deep in debt to the Chinese, do we really need to use a service that promotes expanded government?

over 5 years ago

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Keith Simpson

Personally I think this argument has got far too scientific. As a common user it is only too obvious that it many sectors (particularly travel) Google makes no attempt to give you what you serach for but serves up an army of intermediries all hoping to feed off a link here or a click there. And why is it that Wikipedia never appears in Google results these days when searching for pure information?

Having said that I have just returned from the States and I felt that I got better quality search results there. Which prompts another thought - is Google joining the rip-off Britain club by taking more advantage of users here than elsewhere?

over 5 years ago

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Tom Atkinson

Edelman, I think this is a bit ridiculous. Think about the history behind this: Google has a variety of verticle search engines: news, images, fiance, maps. It can't blend in results from it's other engines into the main results in any other way. Like when you say "These characteristics are inconsistent with ordinary algorithmic web search" I agree with you, but this is not ordinary algo web search, this is blended web search.

Imagine a website where it's sole purpose was to send it's users to other websites - this is what Google does. The fact that the website would also like some people to traverse into other sections of it's own website is normal understandable behaviour of any website: they are fully within their rights to do so. Like clicking the link to view image results for the query etc, it just couldn't be done any other way I reckon.

Furthermore, like Edward Cowell says, isn't it possible for Yahoo's finance sections to appear in there if they were to implement the OneBox stuff properly and thoroughly? Or another idea, is that Google is just really good at SEO. :)

I think the hard-coding you're referring to, is simply the percentage threshold that gets crossed by adding a comma. For example, without the comma you have 60% of such and such, but with the comma, it drops to say 40% and below some hard-coded threshold that stops the Finance verticle engine from appearing, and resorts back to the regular general web search.

over 5 years ago

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Meghan Burton, SEO & Social Media Manager at Web Marketplace Solutions

I think this is a bit of an overreaction. I don't know why it surprises anyone that Google tends to favor its own services - indeed, the 'Onebox' answers a few of the queries raised by Edelman. You'll also note that Google offers a choice of links when putting its partners up top in the Onebox. If you like a service, you can go to it as easily as you can go to the top Expedia link. Adding a comma to a result simply means that Google isn't necessarily smart enough to then realise you're still looking for the same stock quote. Moreover, it's completely wrong that the SERPs don't change when you add a comma to other queries. I just had a look at a few we're working on and they do change quite a bit when commas are added. It's also important to remember that people at Google know how their algorithims work. They can make it so their pages show up WITHOUT going in and manually changing the results. They're always going to be better at SEO than the rest of us, simply because they know precisely what to do to make their site come out on top. So, they haven't actually lied in most cases - they're just splitting hairs. Which does call their morality into question, so in that respect, Edelman is correct.  They probably should be looked at more closely. Google, however, is a business. If we expected them to just sit there and let others take money that they could be earning, we'd be ridiculously naive, no matter what their public stance is on anything.

over 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

"As Edelman himself notes, Google's Marissa Meyer has previously admitted that Google's policy is to promote its own properties"


Of course they will promote their own properties, and they will admit this but that isn't saying they will in their search results. Google promotes Chrome on it's homepage for IE users, and it is perfectly entitled to.


What Ben has found is interesting and if it is true and very worrying however i just don't see it  in Google's interests. Yes they could gain financially by doing this but a whistleblower would be disastrous for them, would they really put their massive profitability at risk just for a few more dollars? I doubt it.


Even if these Google properties mentioned aren't popular I would expect them to be well ranked (with no funny business going on). If I was in charge at Google, apart form being very rich i would not be happy if Google services were not ranking well, I mean surely the owners of those businesses would know who to do good SEO??!

over 5 years ago

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Elena C

Has Google commented on the findings?

over 5 years ago

Niranjan Sridharan

Niranjan Sridharan, Digital Auditor at ABC

Well Mr.Edelman, looks like European Commission are going to test out your findings in-depth http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2034138,00.html?xid=rss-mostpopular

over 5 years ago

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Tran

I am sure this piece of writing has touched all the
internet viewers, its really really good post on building up new website.

almost 4 years ago

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