Edelman on Google’s Ranking of its Services

I’ve been interested in the problem of self-reinforcing dominance lately. I’ve written a good deal about this in the area of search engines, but I’ve had less to say of late because I’ve felt that personalization makes it very difficult to study them. But I may be wrong about that; Ben Edelman has some pretty surprising results in a recently released piece:

Search for a stock ticker (example: CSCO), and the three most prominent links on the page — the large-type all-caps ticker symbol, the large price chart, and the left-most details link — will all take you to Google Finance. Google Finance isn’t the most popular finance site; according to ComScore, Yahoo Finance claims that title, and indeed ComScore puts Google Finance in position #60 (as of April 2010). Nonetheless, the three most prominent links all promote Google’s in-house finance service. . . .

It is well-known that the top-most algorithmic link enjoys a large share of search traffic — 34%+ according to Chitika. Meanwhile, even the second link gets less than half as many clicks — less than 17%. If these figures apply equally to Google’s hard-coded links, then every time Google puts its own link first, it takes a third of all available clicks for itself — while cutting by half the traffic provided to the site that would otherwise be ranked first. But Google’s hard-coded links tend to be distinctive and graphic-rich (pictures in Health results, charts in Finance, etc.), so the actual effect is likely to be even larger.

When facing antitrust scrutiny, Google typically cites its use of algorithms as a key defense — arguing that because search results are, purportedly, generated by computer algorithm, antitrust review is not necessary. I emphatically disagree. For one, an algorithm can indeed be biased; consider an algorithm that elects to place all Google results before all competing services, or an algorithm that reduces the prominence of links to any site that uses competing services rather than Google’s offerings.

Perhaps most provocatively, in light of Google’s recent move to enter the travel industry, Edelman brings up this precedent:

I am struck by similarities between the favored treatment Google gives its own services and the favored treatment airlines previously gave their own flights in customer reservation systems (CRS’s) they respectively owned. For example, when travel agents searched for flights through Apollo, a CRS then owned by United Airlines, United flights would come up first — even if other carriers offered lower prices or nonstop service. The Department of Justice intervened, culminating in the rules prohibiting any CRS owned by an airline from ordering listings “us[ing] any factors directly or indirectly relating to carrier identity” (14 CFR 255). The same principle applies here: Google ought not rank results by any metric that distinctively favors Google.

I credit that it is less than straightforward to adapt CRS rules to search engines. CRS’s sort a limited number of flights along a defined set of criteria (e.g. departure time, arrival time, total travel time, number of connections, price). In contrast, search engines must analyze a startling volume of web pages with arbitrarily many attributes. Still, the same principles hold true: A firm ought not use dominance in one area (CRS or web search) to suppress competition in unrelated fields (flights or independent web services). CRS rules continue to embody that principle, and it’s time to insist on similar evenhandedness in online search.

How might Google respond to these claims? Well, contemporary antitrust is a bit of a paper tiger, so who knows if it even has to. As Richard Waters notes, Google’s head of search quality has responded to Edelman’s research by stating that “Our tendency tends to be, when a [Google] product has become popular with its users, then it’s OK to show it.” Waters responds:

Is it only a tendency, what does “popular” mean, and what’s the cause and effect here – do services only prove their popularity after they appear at the top of the search results? And does it matter if a rival service might actually have produced a better overall result for the user?

These are taboo questions for most of Web 2.0. No one really wants to grapple with the role of luck in success online. Perhaps a site succeeds because it’s the best site; perhaps it’s seen as the best site because it succeeded in the past. Nobody really knows.

Google might offer a more vigorous defense by fusing the company’s promotion of “internet freedom” as “free trade,” and its resort to First Amendment protections in response to business tort cases. However, even if it were deemed to have a right to order all its results in whatever way it wanted to, that would not seem to protect it from the type of disclosures about ranking methods that regulators might seek.