In recent months, Google has gotten more aggressive with highlighting its own content over competitors’. Its rivals, like Yelp and TripAdvisor, aren’t very happy about it. Where do you go if you have a beef with Google? The Rupert Murdoch–owned Wall Street Journal, of course. In the paper, those companies, along with WebMD and Citysearch, say they’ve noticed their links being pushed lower and lower on the results page in recent weeks. Indeed, Google has been trying to develop more of its own content or specialized-search sites, like Google Maps or Google Health or Google Finance, in order to increase revenue. And what better way to promote that content than to display it prominently on its very popular search engine? Google is currently under antitrust investigation in Europe for doing the same thing. For example, searching for businesses on a Google map might point users to “Places” pages for a specific businesses, rather than the local business’s website or, say, a (typically more helpful) Yelp result. How did Google respond? Not very contritely.
Google said that it didn’t intend to hurt competitors, but pointed out that the complaints in the E.U.’s investigation came from rivals who had ties to Microsoft. A Google spokesperson explained that its “quick answers” format at the top of the page tries to figure out what users are searching for.
And sometimes the most useful answer is the one that makes my bosses the most money.
As Google builds its business rating site, Hotpot, and Boutiques.com, its shopping site — not to mention its much-contested travel portal to rival Kayak — the search giant is more likely to keep manipulating traffic in its favor, at great peril.
For all of the public’s instinctual backlash against Google, it’s managed to get its own verb by establishing itself as some kind of natural-language order over the Internet. Google’s algorithms may not be transparent to us, but its search results usually get us where we’re trying to go. As Google continues to try to promote its unchecked diversification into every corner of the Internet, it risks messing up its core business: search and advertising based on the fact that people use it for search. There are plenty of alternative search engines out there. But, thus far, little incentive to stray for very long. If Google is going to show visitors its own sub-par content first, however, consumers are likely to either tune out those initial results just like they do banner ads, or go somewhere else.