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Jan 25, 2017 — TrackFive

Google Products Search Under Scrutiny

A recent study by Jack Nicas of the Wall Street Journal has suggested that Google is buying millions of its own search ads to compete with competitors and rank Alphabet, Inc. or Google products at the top of results. Is it possible that the data giant is taking advantage of their competitors to make sure Google products appear first in a search?

We aren’t exactly sure, but what we do know is that during a study led by SEMrush, Google, or Google-related products and services appeared before competitors over 90 percent of the time. Let’s take a look at the study and discuss what this means for the future of Google and the transparency of its search practices.

Google Products Search History

SEMrush Organic Google Search Study

SEMrush analyzed 1,000 searches for 25 terms. Some of these search terms included speakers, laptops, streaming devices, smartphones, and carbon monoxide detectors. On December 1, SEMrush searched each term 1,000 times using a desktop computer with past web-surfing history blocked as to not affect the results.

I’m not sure if the results of this study are actually surprising or not. SEMrush found that Google products or products from a sister company were in the top spot of 91 percent searches. In 43 percent of the searches, Google and Google-related products used the top two ad spots.

Shocking Search Statistics

Out of all 25 search terms, 23 terms showed Alphabet-owned companies or Google store products in the top spot 87 percent of the time or more. The only two terms where Google products did not appear in the top spot more than 67 percent, were electronic gifts and home security camera. For those queries, other company products appeared in the top spot for search 66.7 and 60.7 percent of the time, respectively.

For 12 of the terms, Alphabet-owned companies or Google products showed in the top spot 100 percent of the time. Google has, of course, said that their ads do not affect other advertisers, and the reason their ads show this much is because of the quality of the ads and the amount Google is willing to pay for them (we’ll come back to this in a bit).

Is Google really to be trusted? After the study was completed, WSJ shared the results with the data giant on December 15. After the results were shared, Google products “mysteriously” disappeared from ad space. Nearly all from the Google Store were removed. If you search these terms now, you will not see Alphabet-owned businesses or Google products in the top spot every time. Google refused to comment on the disparity.

Screenshots Never Die

Are we really just supposed to take Google’s word for it? Are we supposed to genuinely believe that the largest advertising business doesn’t hold a conflict of interest in buying the same ad spaces that their competitors are bidding for? SEMrush shares the results of their study to Google and afterward the ads disappear but Google has no comment.

In an age of technology, I’m sure many of us are screenshot survivors. You’ve been there: you sent a text or wrote a post that you later deleted, but it was too late. Someone screenshotted your blunder and now the internet will know forever. Well, Nicas shared screenshots of his searches in his report. Even for terms like a smoke detector (which Google does not sell), internet-connected alarms made by Alphabet-owned Nest took up the top spot 99.6 percent of the time.

In Google’s Defense…

While the report very clearly demonstrated Google is (or was) promoting its own products in the paid ad spaces before competitors, there is technically nothing wrong with this. Google says that when it competes against competitors for ad spaces, other advertisers are charged as if Google was not bidding.

Remember earlier when I told you Google said their ads show up first because of the ad quality and the amount Google is willing to pay? Well first, let’s assume the ad space behemoth’s marketing budget is much larger than most (because we all know it is).

Second, we know how ad auctions work don’t we? I’ll accept that it is true advertisers don’t have to pay more when Google bids against them for that particular auction. However, you have to imagine companies like Facebook and Microsoft are constantly trying to increase their advertising budgets for the chance to appear in the top spot.

A Future of Google Transparency

The Alphabet-owned company is already under scrutiny from European Union antitrust regulators regarding favoring their comparison-shopping service over rivals. The charges they are facing could end up costing Google billions of dollars in fines and may require them to change their search practices in Europe.

In the states, it seems that Google’s “high-quality ads” aren’t showing in the top spots anymore, so maybe that is Google’s way of dealing with this issue. They may not have to answer to advertisers now, but in the future, I think we should expect to see large advertisers who compete with Google products request more transparency as it relates to Google-involved ad auctions.

Google is a data-giant that we all rely on for numerous searches each day. But it is my opinion that when you are a large and dominant company, you owe it to your competitors and customers to provide ethical, transparent service. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if Google agrees with me or not.

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