“Revisiting Search Engine Bias” Article Now Online

By Eric Goldman

In 2006, I published an article entitled Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology. The paper was based on my presentation at a December 2005 conference entitled “Regulating Search?” at Yale Law School.

At that time, I expected angst about search engine bias would die down over time as people became more familiar and comfortable with search engines generally. To my surprise, discussions about search engine bias/search “neutrality” are still going strong–perhaps stronger than ever. Next week, I’m speaking on the topic twice in Washington DC. First, on Tuesday, I’m speaking at a TechFreedom event, “Search Engine Regulation: A Solution in Search of a Problem?” Second, on Thursday, I’m speaking at George Mason Law School at a conference, “The Law and Economics of Search Engines and Online Advertising.” If you’re in the DC area, I hope to see you at one or both events.

In light of all this continued interest, I have posted to SSRN a new essay, “Revisiting Search Engine Bias.” This essay supplements my 2006 article by talking about how the industry and technology has changed in the past 5 years and how those changes affect the discussion in my 2006 article. The abstract is below. As always, I welcome your feedback.

One of the arguments in my 2006 article was that search engines (and other information resources) compete on relevancy, and consumers who don’t get relevant results will quickly lose confidence that the search engine is solving their informational needs. This argument doesn’t completely address concerns that consumers don’t know what results they are not seeing, but it does respond directly to critics who believe that search engines may self-promote other services at the expense of their competition. If a search engine self-promotes but the promoted services aren’t what consumers want, they’ll view those self-promotional efforts critically.

On this topic, Gord Hotchkiss published an interesting article at Search Engine Land called “Why Results Quality is So Important to Search Engines.” Gord explains:

We’re none-too-patient in our hunt for usefulness….In our many studies over the years, we’ve found the typical session time, from first scan to first click, to be in the 10 to 12 second range. And in that time, we scan approximately 4 to 7 listings. This provides a clue as to why 3 ads at the top of the page seems to be the upper limit that users will tolerate.

This means search engines have a brief opportunity to make a good impression on consumers. If they don’t get the top results right for consumers, and quickly, consumers will grade the experience as a fail.

Gord’s research also reinforces the importance of ad relevancy. He describes an A/B test where they replaced the top ad with both a relevant and less relevant ad and kept everything else the same. The site with the less relevant ad fared poorly on several key consumer satisfaction metrics–including this conspicuous statistic:

For the first question – would you use the engine for a similar search, only 5% of the group shown the less relevant ad said yes. 75% of the group shown the relevant ad said they would use the engine again.

This seems to be an excellent cautionary tale for search engines trying to self-promote their own services. If those self-promotions aren’t what consumers want, then the risk is high that it will drive away consumers.

While Google’s “competition is one click away” argument depends on there, in fact, being a competitor that is only one click away, Gord’s research supports the underlying assumption that consumers are finicky and not sticky–and thus Google is in a battle to win its consumers each and every time they visit.

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The abstract for my Revisiting Search Engine Bias article:

This essay takes stock of the search engine industry circa 2011. It recaps four important changes over the past half-decade:

1) Google now dominates the search engine industry, but it faces emerging competition from entities that are not traditional search engines.

2) Google has changed its search results pages substantially.

3) Google has expanded its proprietary service offerings, which it promotes on its search results page.

4) The emergence of Net Neutrality as a policy issue has spurred consideration of a “Search Neutrality” analogue.

The essay concludes with some observations about how these changes affect the discussion about search engine bias.

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