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.