It's official: the search engine industry is playing at the big table. In the past year both Bing and Google have given financial support to researchers who have produced studies claiming they were "less biased" than the other when it comes to plugging their products preferentially.
Both Ben Edelman's study Measuring Bias in 'Organic' Search and now Josh Wright's Defining and Measuring Search Bias: Some Preliminary Evidence seem to find the sponsor of their research had less bias.
Seems some support Google - skewering Edelman and supporting Wright's report - while others still see Google as highly manipulative of their results.
Aaron Wall in his article, "Is Google Too Big To Fail?", points out that beyond their own site promotion in the organic results and their placement of more profit-generating product marketing:
"Google will not disrupt a site or advertiser that will negatively impact their own quarterly earnings. When Google does disrupt one, it is because they have a backup in place. That backup may be their own internal project or a competitor of yours who sends 95% of their advertising through Google's ad platforms. When Google claimed they were going after content farms, and Demand Media's properties (which are explicitly spam) were spared, the reason was obvious, because it would have visibly impacted their bottom line."
The ultimate question that needs to be answered is "Do the search engines have the right to place their own stuff at the top, especially given the person is already at their site?"
If McDonald's owned 70 percent of the U.S. burger market, would the government expect them to sell Burger King too in their restaurants? Does a television station that has the exclusive rights to a division of a sport have to advertise the games in the other division being shown on another channel?
Search engines are websites that provide an information retrieval service. If they added a small print cavaet that they include sites they own or financially gain from promoting, would that solve the government's need for disclosure?
Both studies have glaring errors, both use relatively small sample sizes, and neither would have ever finished if they were going to do a truly thorough analysis.
The fact that these type of studies are being done and getting funding - beyond the engines - shows that scholars are aware of the impact search has on every day life - both from a business and human perspective. The constant changes to search engine algorithms is making marketing through them a challenge.
Is it any wonder that one of the early reliable sources of information about SEO - SEOBook - stated "I no longer invest my time or money in new businesses that require Google's traffic. Google should expect more walled content gardens in their future. Google's biggest challengers such as Facebook and Apple recognize this, and their platforms are very much walled gardens. That is too bad for the web as we know it today."
Meanwhile, I don't blame the search sites from promoting their own stuff - I would in their position - and sure I see instances of "bias" in both Bing and Google results - anyone looking can.
But let's forget party politics and all admit it is done by all and beyond their own products, the sites generating them income do seem to get preferential treatment.
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