Google's search practices come under scrutiny from leading academic Wu

Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, argues in a paper that Google is knowingly degrading its search results to favor its own properties.

Google is allegedly degrading its search results to favor its own properties, argues a paper co-written by Columbia Law School professor and author Tim Wu.

The paper, delivered over the weekend at Oxford University's Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, is notable since Wu was a Google fellow and net neutrality proponent. Wu also penned The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Wu, along with Harvard's Michael Luca and the Yelp data science team, outlines via A/B testing how Google's move to favor its content cuts engagement. As a result, Google is "reducing social welfare," according to the paper. In other words, Google is delivering lower quality results to plug its reviews over Web rivals.

Given that European regulators are looking at Google's business practices on an ongoing basis, Wu's paper is likely to gain some headlines. One rub: Bloomberg reports that Wu was compensated by Yelp for the paper.

Nevertheless, Wu's paper is worth a read. The biggest issue is that the paper largely rests on the idea that user engagement is directly related to clicks. Google would likely argue that if it delivers results at a glance those extra clicks aren't needed. What's also worth noting is that Google's search has enough advertising market clout that it is almost viewed as a utility that sits in between both sides of the market.

The paper's abstract goes like this:

By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to leverage its dominance in search to gain customers for this content. This yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results. To investigate, we implement a randomized controlled trial in which we vary the search results that users are shown ­ comparing Google's current policy of favorable treatment of Google content to results in which external content is displayed. We find that users are 45% more likely to engage with universal search results (i.e. prominently displayed map results on Google) when the results are organically determined. This suggests that by leveraging dominance in search to promote its internal content, Google is reducing social welfare ­ leaving consumers with lower quality results and worse matches.

The study relies on comparing two sets of search results -- one using Google's universal search and an alternative plug-in called Focus On The User, which uses the search giant algorithm without the plugging of Google+.

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Wu's paper argues that Google is knowingly hurting its search results for business use. This "knowing neglect" hurts all sides of the market. The paper noted:

When Google knowingly degrades its search so as to harm its competitors, the impact can be felt by both sides of the market - by the consumers who don't get the results (and products) they value most highly, and the merchants who might otherwise have sold to them...

Important to this conclusion is evidence that Google is sacrificing a higher quality and potentially more profitable product in favor of a more exclusionary option. That fortifies the intuition that the conduct is suspect.

How this paper influences any ongoing antitrust issues for Google remains to be seen. At the very least, the paper points users to the Focus On The User plug-in so consumers can check out Wu's points on their own.

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