In Google’s early years, users would type in a query and get back a page of 10 “blue links” that led to different websites. “We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible,” co-founder Larry Page said in 2004.
Today, Google often considers that “right place” to be Google, an investigation by The Markup has found.
We examined more than 15,000 recent popular queries and found that Google devoted 41 percent of the first page of search results on mobile devices to its own properties and what it calls “direct answers,” which are populated with information copied from other sources, sometimes without their knowledge or consent.
When we examined the top 15 percent of the page, the equivalent of the first screen on an iPhone X, that figure jumped to 63 percent. For one in five searches in our sample, links to external websites did not appear on the first screen at all.
A trending search in our data for “myocardial infarction” shows how Google has piled up its products at the top. It returned:
Google’s dictionary definition.
A “people also ask” box that expanded to answer related questions without leaving the search results page.
A “knowledge panel,” which is an abridged encyclopedia entry with various links.
And a “related conditions” carousel leading to various new Google searches for other diseases.
All of these appeared before search results by WebMD, Harvard University, and Medscape. In fact, a user would have to scroll nearly halfway down the page—about 42 percent—before reaching the first “organic” result in that search.
Google’s decision to place its products above competitors’ and to present “answers” on the search page has led to lawsuits and regulatory fines. A number of websites said it killed their revenues—and their companies. Founders of both innovative startups and companies that had been around for a decade or more told The Markup that once Google started placing its product first, they didn’t stand a chance.
Travel research firm Skift wrote in November that the entire online travel industry is suffering. “The fact that Google is leveraging its dominance as a search engine into taking market share away from travel competitors is no longer even debatable.”
The choice to highlight its own products has been deliberate: Internal emails unearthed by the European Commission in an antitrust investigation show Google staffers discussing the need to place its comparison-shopping product at the top of the search results to garner traffic. An email the following year noted traffic to the retooled product had more than doubled from four million to 10 million visits, and “most of this growth is from improved google.com integration.”
Sally Hubbard, an expert on antitrust and technology companies with the Open Markets Institute, said Google’s decisions in search have huge implications. “Imagine you go to the library, and the card catalog is picking and choosing what book to get based on what makes the library the most money.”
Google makes five times as much revenue through advertising on its own properties as it does selling ad space on third-party websites.
In a written statement, Google spokesperson Lara Levin took issue with The Markup counting “answers,” related queries, and similar results as “Google” in our analysis.
“Providing feedback links, helping people reformulate queries or explore topics, and presenting quick facts is not designed to preference Google. These features are fundamentally in the interest of users, which we validate through a rigorous testing process,” she said. “Sometimes, the most helpful information will be a link to another website—other times, it will be a map, a restaurant listing, a video or an image.”
Levin called The Markup’s methodology “flawed and misleading.” She criticized it for being “based on a non-representative sample of searches” and said using Google Trends makes it more likely that results would include Google “knowledge panels” than a random sample would. However, Google has not publicly released a random sample of searches for research.
In response to Page’s 2004 quote about the company’s mission to get people “out of Google,” Levin said times have changed: “As a search engine, Google’s mission is to quickly direct searchers to great information, wherever that information is, as Page went on to explain. At that time, that generally meant to direct people from search results to websites. As search technologies have developed, that’s not always the best way to assist people.”
She did not answer questions about whether those changes present the search engine with a conflict of interest.
Nearly nine in 10 U.S. web searches are performed on Google.
The effects of placing its own products on the search page can be stark: In the nine years since Google Flights and Google Hotels launched, those sites have become market leaders. They garnered almost twice as many U.S. site visits last year as each of their largest competitors, Expedia.com and Booking.com, even though we found Google Flights doesn’t always show users all the options.