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.