Is Google manipulating its own search results to put preference for its own content over that of its competitors?
This is being asked by industry observers in light of an update made by the search engine giant, an update that may potentially significantly affect how consumers access user reviews and ratings of local businesses.
Google update on local search, reviews, and Knowledge Panels
Recently, Google updated specific types of search results in order to display “reviews from the web” and “critic reviews.”
The addition of “reviews from the web” brings user ratings from up to three third-party online review sites.
When a user searches for a restaurant in Chicago, say, or “Restaurant Gary Danko in SF”, the information displayed by the Knowledge Panels will include the business’ overall rating and review quantity on third-party sites like OpenTable, Facebook, Zomato, Zagat, and TripAdvisor, among others.
The update, however, seems to have excluded Yelp from the list of review sites from which Google is aggregating user ratings and review data.
It can also be argued that, by displaying reviews from the web in search results for local businesses, Google is driving organic traffic (and therefore advertising revenue) from these third-party sites to its own Knowledge Panels search feature. Users, after all, won’t have to visit TripAdvisor or Zomato to access reviews and ratings information; all they have to do is enter the search term for a local business, and — voila! — the Knowledge Panels will aggregate reviews and customer feedback from relevant review sites.
Google’s manipulation: a “degraded version of its search engine”?
This question was also explored recently by a Harvard Business School (HBS) researcher, a former FTC adviser, and data scientists at Yelp, the site whose online reviews and ratings traditionally compete with Google’s own review content in search results for local businesses.
In a paper by former FTC adviser and legal scholar Tim Wu and HBS faculty member Michael Luca, it was asserted that “Google has increasingly developed and promoted its own content as an alternative to results from other websites. This yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results… (and reduces) social welfare, leaving consumers with lower quality results and worse matches.”
If the findings from Wu and Luca’s research study are accurate, one site that should be adversely affected is Yelp, which was listed as one of the complainants in an EU antitrust case against Google in 2015.
The researchers found that users are 45 percent more likely to engage with universal search results – for example, prominently displayed map results on Google – when these results are organically determined. Moreover, users are more likely to click on results based on how relevant than on results that give preference to Google’s promoted content.
“The survey found 32 percent of users would click on Google’s current local results, while 47 percent click on the alternative merit-based results,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “That near-50 percent increase in clicks is ‘immense in the modern Web industry.’”
Wu and Luca summarize their findings by saying, “Stated simply, when it comes to local search, Google is presenting its users with a degraded version of its search engine.”
It’s important to note that Yelp itself sponsored the research study, and that Luca is the same author of another study suggesting that a one-star increase in a restaurant’s Yelp rating can lead roughly to a 9 percent increase in revenue.
Furthermore, the researchers acknowledged that their survey methodology does not guarantee 100 percent match with actual Google search results, and provides only a “reasonable estimate” for search and user behavior.
Meanwhile, in a Fortune report, Google execs responded by denying the allegations. “This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries,” a spokesperson said. “At Google we focus on trying to provide the best results for our users.”
Balancing efforts across the web
Regardless of whether or not Wu and Luca’s findings will ever be proven true, and what the long-term effects of Google’s update will be, the developments place even greater emphasis on the importance of balancing digital marketing efforts across multiple sites.
Online reviews, for example, continue to gain traction as a tool for reputation-building and search engine optimization (SEO), but what business owners must realize is that focusing review management efforts on just Yelp, or just TripAdvisor, or just Google is not going to be as effective as having a five-star reputation across multiple relevant review sites – especially if third-party sites’ content is indeed being drowned out by Google-promoted content.