I don’t know what the exact numbers are, but something like 95-plus percent of people using Google click on one of the first five results that come up in their searches. And Google has said since basically Day One that their algorithms and other bushwa are designed to give people the best, most popular, more relevant results in those searches. Turns out, that’s not always the case, and, moreover, Google has been gaming their own system.
Google+ Plus Google = Googled
A new study by legal scholar Tim Wu, Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca, and Yelp’s Data Science Team (which is a thing, apparently) shows that Google has long been manipulating local search results to favor their own “products”. That is to say, no matter what you search for, Google has been boosting the rankings of sites affiliated with Google via Google+ or Google+ Local.
A Google search for, say, “[your town here] pizza” will yield a crapton of results, obviously. But the listings at the top of the search, and, therefore, the ones most likely to be clicked on, are those with the best rankings on Google-related networks. Other pizzerias may have higher rankings or better reviews on other, non-Google-affiliated networks, but if they’re not “partnered” with Google, so to speak, they’ll automatically be lower in the rankings.
This effect is more pronounced for local searches than for broader ones. Google has a feature called the “Local OneBox”, which displays the seven “top” results for local searches. The Local OneBox takes up a huge chunk of space on a search results screen, and, as most folks never scroll past the fifth listing or so, all but guarantees that the businesses (or whatever) listed in the LOB will receive the lion’s share of clicks. The Local OneBox pulls its results exclusively from Google’s specialized search sites, like Google+ Local. So, no matter how good your products, services, or what-have-you are, if you’re not playing the Google game, you’re kind of screwed.
In conducting research for their study, the Yelp Data Science Team asked over 2,500 people to Google a local search, then reviewed the results. They found that a vast majority of users clicked pages from non-Google-affiliated review sites, like Trip Advisor or Yelp (with no prompting from the Yelp gang), than those in the Local OneBox. Users are therefore not getting what they want, but rather what Google wants them to see at the top of their search results.
As the study’s authors put it, “The fact that Google’s own algorithm would provide better results suggests that Google is making a strategic choice to display their own content, rather than choosing results that consumers would prefer.”