Google woos people with its “don’t be evil” slogan and assures us that everything it does is meant to enhance our online experience. But a new study by US advocacy group Consumer Watchdog – of which I am part – has found evidence that the internet giant’s search results are skewed to its own advantage.
With billions of web pages in existence and more being added every day, search engines are the gateway to the internet. They should be neutral – that is, their results should be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.
In the US, Google is used by around 65 per cent of people. In some countries its market share tops 90 per cent. Most people’s experience of the internet is determined by how Google lists its search results.
In 2007, Google launched “Universal Search”, which blends results from its own sites, such as images and video, with what it gathers from trawling web pages. Our study found evidence suggesting that Universal Search is squeezing out Google’s competitors by producing search results that favour its own products and services. For example, many search results now display a Google map on the first page.
Since 2007, traffic to Google sites has soared. In video, Google’s YouTube has increased its market share from 40 per cent to 80 per cent, while its rival Photobucket, which once had 20 per cent, now has less than 3 per cent. In still images, Google Images’ share has increased from 43 per cent to 55 per cent, while Photobucket has fallen from 31 per cent to 10 per cent and Yahoo has fallen from 12 per cent to 7 per cent. Google Maps had around 20 per cent of market share in 2007, but now dominates with 51 per cent.
Of course, Google could be succeeding because its offerings are better than its competitors’, but differences in quality do not appear to account for such radical shifts in traffic.
Google claims its search is neutral, but our study suggests it is not: you increasingly see what Google wants you to see and go where Google wants you to go.
John M. Simpson is a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit, non-partisan public interest group with offices in Washington DC and Santa Monica, California