Google Says Yelp-Backed Study Is Flawed

Conflicting claims fly as European antitrust officials await a response to objections from Google.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

June 30, 2015

3 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: Foundem)</p>

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A research study conducted by two US academics and sponsored by Yelp asserts that Google is "making its overall [search] product worse for users in order to provide favorable treatment for Google content."

Yelp has been sparring with Google for years over Google's use of Yelp content in Google search results. Last year, it opposed Google's effort to settle charges brought by the European Commission that Google has abused its search industry dominance.

European competition officials contend that Google runs its search business in an anticompetitive manner. Google has made three efforts to propose settlement terms, but each has been rebuffed.

Separately, Google's handling of Android is also being investigated in Europe.

The study, based on data provided by Yelp, and conducted by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu and Harvard Business School assistant professor Michael Luca, was presented at the Antitrust Enforcement Symposium in Oxford, UK, over the weekend. It finds that in local queries, "Google appears to be strategically employing universal search in a way that degrades the product so as to slow and exclude challengers to its dominant search paradigm."

[Oracle vs. Google lawsuit will return to court. See Google's Android Appeal Rejected By Supreme Court.]

Universal search refers to Google's practice of mingling specialized content from Google-operated services like Google Maps, Google Flights, and Google+ Local, with "organic" search results culled from its index of websites. Google's competitors argue that Google implements universal search in a way that favors Google content over third-party content.

Google contends the study is flawed and reflects Yelp's ongoing effort to secure more prominent placement in Google search results.

"This isn't new -- Yelp's been making these arguments to regulators, and demanding higher placement in search results, for the past five years," a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries. At Google we focus on trying to provide the best results for our users."

In April, in conjunction with the European Commission's formal Statement of Objections about Google's search business, Google published a blog post defending the way its search system works.

"Companies like Axel Springer, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and Yelp (all vociferous complainants in this process) have alleged that Google's practice of including our specialized results (Flight Search, Maps, Local results, etc.) in search has significantly harmed their businesses," said Google Search SVP Amit Singhal. "But their traffic, revenues, and profits (as well as the pitch they make to investors) tell a very different story."

Earlier this month Foundem, a UK-based search service, rebutted Google's claim that competition is thriving online, arguing that Google's charts disguise how the company's actions have affected competing search services. Foundem asserts that Google in recent years has seen a huge increase in traffic to its own sites while competitors have suffered.

According to Reuters, Google has until Aug. 17 to respond to European Commission charges.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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