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FairSearch Survey: Google’s Commitment Offer Makes for an Unlevel Playing Field

  • One in five clicked on Google Shopping links, only one in 200 on rival links
  • More than half of 1,888 surveyed didn’t know “Google Shopping” is paid content
  • Proposed commitments fail to restore competition in search
  • Better placement & presentation of Google content than rivals create problems

To see the survey, click here.

BRUSSELS, 17 July – Google’s proposed commitments to the European Commission attract the vast majority of searchers to the company’s own products, and discourage them from visiting rivals, a survey commissioned by trade group FairSearch has found.

Google benefits from better placement, richer graphics and better visuals than it permits competitors, the study by two academics found. As a result, one in five surfers clicked on Google’s commercial web services, such as “Google Shopping”, but only one in 200 clicked on those of its rivals.

More than half of those surveyed did not realise Google Shopping links were paid for, highlighting an issue raised by European consumer group BEUC in its response to the Google proposals: “consumers trust search results to be impartial and based solely on relevance to their query, without manipulation of the order or results.” http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/beucgoogle052413.pdf

FairSearch spokesman Thomas Vinje called Google’s offer to label its results a fundamentally flawed solution: “Google’s proposed commitments across the board retard rather than promote competition; they do more harm than good.”

Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in May 2012 that Google appeared to be abusing its dominance by giving favourable treatment to its own specialised web services, compared to others offering similar information about restaurants, hotels, or products. Google proposed commitments to remedy the problems.

Google formally submitted its commitments in April 2013. One proposal was to label its “Google Shopping” boxes, which appear above ordinary search results. It also said three rivals could purchase small blue links at the bottom of the Google Shopping box.

The on-line searchers made their choice on a mock-up page matching Google’s proposals. They had the choice of clicking on cameras in the Google Shopping box, or on rivals’ three small blue links at the bottom of the box, or they could click on ordinary search results.

“We conclude that the ‘three rival’ links remedy proposed by Google would not draw consumer attention to rival websites,” said the study conducted by University of Illinois professor David Hyman and University of San Francisco professor David Franklyn.

The researchers also tested mobile surfing-style screens and found the disparity between clicks on Google services and others even more pronounced than for desktop search. Only one in 1,000 surfers clicked on a small blue box labelled “other links.”

UNLIKELY TO WORK

FairSearch submitted the study as part of its response to the European Commission’s market test of Google’s proposed commitments. It was to help demonstrate that the proposals were unlikely to restore competition against Google Shopping or Google Places.

The study found problems because rival links did not appear “in a manner that is comparable to the manner in which Google Shopping results are normally displayed”.

The labelling of Google Shopping was supposed to solve any confusion with natural  — that is, unpaid — search, but the survey showed it did not.

“Relatively few people understand that Google Shopping is paid content. Only 34 per cent of respondents correctly responded that the content in Google Shopping represents paid ads. More than 50 per cent of respondents thought Google shopping was unpaid content,” they said.

Hyman and Franklyn ran their Internet survey in Britain between 18 and 22 June 2013 and received 1,888 valid responses. Their findings, detailed in a series of charts, showed that the proposals offered by Google “would have no significant impact and may in fact further confuse consumers.”

Vinje said: “The Hyman / Franklyn study provides the hard, unbiased evidence for what seemed obvious: if Google gives itself prime placement and rich graphics on the search landing page — while relegating rivals to small links — then Google’s own products will prevail.”