Do search engines favor their own sites?

Published on
by Brafton Editorial
Amidst talks of search neutrality, a survey from Harvard professor Ben Edelman suggests that search engines are biased and promote their own sites. The survey has sparked numerous debates on […]

Amidst talks of search neutrality, a survey from Harvard professor Ben Edelman suggests that search engines are biased and promote their own sites. The survey has sparked numerous debates on the web, and some suggest search engine sites' high rankings could be a matter of well-chosen keywords.

The study, Measuring Bias in "Organic" Web Search, compares the top results in leading search engines for presumably common queries. Back in August 2010, Edelman conducted searches related to products search engines offer, including "mail," "email," "calendar" and "maps."

Edelman concludes that all search engines seem to favor their own product sites, which he thinks raises questions about discrepancy if all engines aim to provide the most relevant results. He suggests Google is the biggest offender, saying, "We find that Google's algorithmic search results link to Google's own services more than three times as often as other search engines link to Google's services. For selected keywords, biased results advance search engines' interests at users' expense."

Others have a different interpretation of the results. Search Engine Land defends Google, suggesting the data shows Google sites are "favored" less than one-fifth of the time. Editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan points out that sometimes Google products are also the top results in competitor Microsoft's search engine. Plus, Sullivan argues that unique search engines have unique algorithms, and searchers using different engines may favor the products of their preferred search portals.

Google's Matt Cutts also spoke up in defense of search engine results, suggesting that results which appear to display favoritism may be a matter of good SEO. He tweets, "why would something called "Google Translate" rank higher for [translate] than a product called "Babel Fish"? Surely, SE bias?!? But: no."

Marketers should consider that the study didn't aim to determine "whether individual sites have suffered search engine penalties," but the various interpretations of its results can be used to inform SEO. While brands can't do anything to directly battle favoritism if it exists, they can arm their sites with well-optimized content using intuitive keywords. This is likely valuable insight for a number of businesses this year – as Brafton has reported, search spend is expected to rise in 2011.

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  • http://twitter.com/jgdeutsch Jeff Deutsch

    I find it interesting that you have 4 links in this post, 3 to external sites and 1 to your own site. The 3 external links are nofollow, and the one to your own site is dofollow. Of course we promote our own sites and don’t promote others. Google is no different, and they shouldn’t be expected to be different.

    Jeff Deutsch, Michigan SEO

    • tonio09

      That’s right Jeff, but people go to google to seek out the most relevant information they are looking for. It is the information itself that is the product of Google Search. So if they skew their search results to subtly push their product, it’s called deception, not promotion. Users expect neutral info, but they get biased info.

      Your argument would stand if Google first produced a totally unbiased search result, and then in the sidebar promoted their own product. Or put it as first result and clearly mark it as sponsored. That would be ok. 

  • tonio09

    Try this: Search for “latitude” in Google and Bing. 

    In google, the first 2 (not 1) results link to the same product, Google Latitude, and the Wikipedia article about latitude is somewhere down the page. 

    In bing, the wikipedia article is the first result and Google Latitude is somewhere down the page. 

    Microsoft doesn’t have a product called Latitude, so with Bing we get a neutral search result. Whereas Google’s search is clearly biased towards their own product, Latitude. 

    • tonio09

      This image illustrates it better