Archives For Search Engines

Six months may not seem a great deal of time in the general business world, but in the Internet space it’s a lifetime as new websites, tools and features are introduced every day that change where and how users get and share information. The rise of Facebook is a great example: the social networking platform that didn’t exist in early 2004 filed paperwork last month to launch what is expected to be one of the largest IPOs in history. To put it in perspective, Ford Motor went public nearly forty years after it was founded.

This incredible pace of innovation is seen throughout the Internet, and since Google’s public disclosure of its Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation just this past June, there have been many dynamic changes to the landscape of the Internet Search market. And as the needs and expectations of consumers continue to evolve, Internet search must adapt – and quickly – to shifting demand.

One noteworthy development was the release of Siri by Apple, which was introduced to the world in late 2011 on the most recent iPhone. Today, many consider it the best voice recognition application in history, but its potential really lies in its ability revolutionize the way we search the Internet, answer questions and consume information. As Eric Jackson of Forbes noted, in the future it may even be a “Google killer.”

Of this we can be certain: Siri is the latest (though certainly not the last) game changer in Internet search, and it has certainly begun to change people’s expectations about both the process and the results of search. The search box, once needed to connect us with information on the web, is dead or dying. In its place is an application that feels intuitive and personal. Siri has become a near-indispensible entry point, and search engines are merely the back-end. And while a new feature, Siri’s expansion is inevitable. In fact, it is rumored that Apple is diligently working on Siri-enabled televisions – an entirely new market for the company.

The past six months have also brought the convergence of social media and search engines, as first Bing and more recently Google have incorporated information from a social network into their search results. Again we see technology adapting and responding to the once-unimagined way individuals find, analyze and accept information. Instead of relying on traditional, mechanical search results and the opinions of strangers, this new convergence allows users to find data and receive input directly from people in their social world, offering results curated by friends and associates.

As Social networks become more integrated with the Internet at large, reviews from trusted contacts will continue to change the way that users search for information. As David Worlock put it in a post titled, “Decline and Fall of the Google Empire,” “Facebook and its successors become the consumer research environment. Search by asking someone you know, or at least have a connection with, and get recommendations and references which take you right to the place where you buy.” The addition of social data to search results lends a layer of novel, trusted data to users’ results. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan agreed writing, “The new system will perhaps make life much easier for some people, allowing them to find both privately shared content from friends and family plus material from across the web through a single search, rather than having to search twice using two different systems.”It only makes sense, from a competition perspective, that Google followed suit and recently merged its social and search data in an effort to make search more relevant and personal.

Inevitably, a host of Google’s critics and competitors has cried foul. In fact, as Google has adapted and evolved from its original template to offer users not only links to URLs but also maps, flight information, product pages, videos and now social media inputs, it has met with a curious resistance at every turn. And, indeed, judged against a world in which Internet search is limited to “ten blue links,” with actual content – answers to questions – residing outside of Google’s purview, it has significantly expanded its reach and brought itself (and its large user base) into direct competition with a host of new entities.

But the worldview that judges these adaptations as unwarranted extensions of Google’s platform from its initial baseline, itself merely a function of the relatively limited technology and nascent consumer demand present at the firm’s inception, is dangerously crabbed. By challenging Google’s evolution as “leveraging its dominance” into new and distinct markets, rather than celebrating its efforts (and those of Apple, Bing and Facebook, for that matter) to offer richer, more-responsive and varied forms of information, this view denies the essential reality of technological evolution and exalts outdated technology and outmoded business practices.

And while Google’s forays into the protected realms of others’ business models grab the headlines, it is also feverishly working to adapt its core technology, as well, most recently (and ambitiously) with its “Google Knowledge Graph” project, aimed squarely at transforming the algorithmic guts of its core search function into something more intelligent and refined than its current word-based index permits. In concept, this is, in fact, no different than its efforts to bootstrap social network data into its current structure: Both are efforts to improve on the mechanical process built on Google’s PageRank technology to offer more relevant search results informed by a better understanding of the mercurial way people actually think.

Expanding consumer welfare requires that Google, like its ever-shifting roster of competitors, must be able to keep up with the pace and the unanticipated twists and turns of innovation. As The Economist recently said, “Kodak was the Google of its day,” and the analogy is decidedly apt. Without the drive or ability to evolve and reinvent itself, its products and its business model, Kodak has fallen to its competitors in the marketplace. Once revered as a powerhouse of technological innovation for most of its history, Kodak now faces bankruptcy because it failed to adapt to its own success. Having invented the digital camera, Kodak radically altered the very definition of its market. But by hewing to its own metaphorical ten blue links – traditional film – instead of understanding that consumer photography had come to mean something dramatically different, Kodak consigned itself to failure.

Like Kodak and every other technology company before it, Google must be willing and able to adapt and evolve; just as for Lewis Carol’s Red Queen, “here it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Neither consumers nor firms are well served by regulatory policy informed by nostalgia. Even more so than Kodak, Google confronts a near-constantly evolving marketplace and fierce competition from unanticipated quarters. If regulators force it to stop running, the market will simply pass it by.

[Cross posted at Forbes]

Last week I linked to my new study on “search bias.”  At the time I noted I would have a few blog posts in the coming days discussing the study.  This is the first of those posts.

A lot of the frenzy around Google turns on “search bias,” that is, instances when Google references its own links or its own content (such as Google Maps or YouTube) in its search results pages.  Some search engine critics condemn such references as inherently suspect and almost by their very nature harmful to consumers.  Yet these allegations suffer from several crucial shortcomings.  As I’ve noted (see, e.g., here and here), these naked assertions of discrimination are insufficient to state a cognizable antitrust claim, divorced as they are from consumer welfare analysis.  Indeed, such “discrimination” (some would call it “vertical integration”) has a well-recognized propensity to yield either pro-competitive or competitively neutral outcomes, rather than concrete consumer welfare losses.  Moreover, because search engines exist in an incredibly dynamic environment, marked by constant innovation and fierce competition, we would expect different engines, utilizing different algorithms and appealing to different consumer preferences, to emerge.  So when search engines engage in product differentiation of this sort, there is no reason to be immediately suspicious of these business decisions.

No reason to be immediately suspicious – but there could, conceivably, be a problem.  If there is, we would want to see empirical evidence of it—of both the existence of bias, as well as the consumer harm emanating from it.  But one of the most notable features of this debate is the striking lack of empirical data.  Surprisingly little research has been done in this area, despite frequent assertions that own-content bias is commonly practiced and poses a significant threat to consumers (see, e.g., here).

My paper is an attempt to rectify this.  In the paper, I investigate the available data to determine whether and to what extent own-content bias actually occurs, by analyzing and replicating a study by Ben Edelman and Ben Lockwood (E&L) and conducting my own study of a larger, randomized set of search queries.

In this post I discuss my analysis and critique of E&L; in future posts I’ll present my own replication of their study, as well as the results of my larger study of 1,000 random search queries.  Finally, I’ll analyze whether any of these findings support anticompetitive foreclosure theories or are otherwise sufficient to warrant antitrust intervention.

E&L “investigate . . . [w]hether search engines’ algorithmic results favor their own services, and if so, which search engines do most, to what extent, and in what substantive areas.”  Their approach is to measure the difference in how frequently search engines refer to their own content relative to how often their rivals do so.

One note at the outset:  While this approach provides useful descriptive facts about the differences between how search engines link to their own content, it does little to inform antitrust analysis because Edelman and Lockwood begin with the rather odd claim that competition among differentiated search engines for consumers is a puzzle that creates an air of suspicion around the practice—in fact, they claim that “it is hard to see why results would vary . . . across search engines.”  This assertion, of course, is simply absurd.  Indeed, Danny Sullivan provides a nice critique of this claim:

It’s not hard to see why search engine result differ at all.  Search engines each use their own “algorithm” to cull through the pages they’ve collected from across the web, to decide which pages to rank first . . . . Google has a different algorithm than Bing.  In short, Google will have a different opinion than Bing.  Opinions in the search world, as with the real world, don’t always agree.

Moreover, this assertion completely discounts both the vigorous competitive product differentiation that occurs in nearly all modern product markets as well as the obvious selection effects at work in own-content bias (Google users likely prefer Google content).  This combination detaches E&L’s analysis from the consumer welfare perspective, and thus antitrust policy relevance, despite their claims to the contrary (and the fact that their results actually exhibit very little bias).

Several methodological issues undermine the policy relevance of E&L’s analysis.  First, they hand select 32 search queries and execute searches on Google, Bing, Yahoo, AOL and Ask.  This hand-selected non-random sample of 32 search queries cannot generate reliable inferences regarding the frequency of bias—a critical ingredient to understanding its potential competitive effects.  Indeed, E&L acknowledge their queries are chosen precisely because they are likely to return results including Google content (e.g., email, images, maps, video, etc.).

E&L analyze the top three organic search results for each query on each engine.  They find that 19% of all results across all five search engines refer to content affiliated with one of them.  They focus upon the first three organic results and report that Google refers to its own content in the first (“top”) position about twice as often as Yahoo and Bing refer to Google content in this position.  Additionally, they note that Yahoo is more biased than Google when evaluating the first page rather than only the first organic search result.

E&L also offer a strained attempt to deal with the possibility of competitive product differentiation among search engines.  They examine differences among search engines’ references to their own content by “compar[ing] the frequency with which a search engine links to its own pages, relative to the frequency with which other search engines link to that search engine’s pages.”  However, their evidence undermines claims that Google’s own-content bias is significant and systematic relative to its rivals’.  In fact, almost zero evidence of statistically significant own-content bias by Google emerges.

E&L find, in general, Google is no more likely to refer to its own content than other search engines are to refer to that same content, and across the vast majority of their results, E&L find Google search results are not statistically more likely to refer to Google content than rivals’ search results.

The same data can be examined to test the likelihood that a search engine will refer to content affiliated with a rival search engine.  Rather than exhibiting bias in favor of an engine’s own content, a “biased” search engine might conceivably be less likely to refer to content affiliated with its rivals.  The table below reports the likelihood (in odds ratios) that a search engine’s content appears in a rival engine’s results.

The first two columns of the table demonstrate that both Google and Yahoo content are referred to in the first search result less frequently in rivals’ search results than in their own.  Although Bing does not have enough data for robust analysis of results in the first position in E&L’s original analysis, the next three columns in Table 1 illustrate that all three engines’ (Google, Yahoo, and Bing) content appears less often on the first page of rivals’ search results than on their own search engine.  However, only Yahoo’s results differ significantly from 1.  As between Google and Bing, the results are notably similar.

E&L also make a limited attempt to consider the possibility that favorable placement of a search engine’s own content is a response to user preferences rather than anticompetitive motives.  Using click-through data, they find, unsurprisingly, that the first search result tends to receive the most clicks (72%, on average).  They then identify one search term for which they believe bias plays an important role in driving user traffic.  For the search query “email,” Google ranks its own Gmail first and Yahoo Mail second; however, E&L also find that Gmail receives only 29% of clicks while Yahoo Mail receives 54%.  E&L claim that this finding strongly indicates that Google is engaging in conduct that harms users and undermines their search experience.

However, from a competition analysis perspective, that inference is not sound.  Indeed, the fact that the second-listed Yahoo Mail link received the majority of clicks demonstrates precisely that Yahoo was not competitively foreclosed from access to users.  Taken collectively, E&L are not able to muster evidence of potential competitive foreclosure.

While it’s important to have an evidence-based discussion surrounding search engine results and their competitive implications, it’s also critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm.  Indeed, any identified bias must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather than individual competitors and websites.  E&L’s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content.  But, taken at face value, their results actually demonstrate little or no evidence of bias—let alone that the little bias they do find is causing any consumer harm.

As I’ll discuss in coming posts, evidence gathered since E&L conducted their study further suggests their claims that bias is prevalent, inherently harmful, and sufficient to warrant antitrust intervention are overstated and misguided.

I have an op-ed up at Main Justice on FTC Chairman Leibowitz’ recent comment in response the a question about the FTC’s investigation of Google that the FTC is looking for a “pure Section Five case.”  With Main Justice’s permission, the op-ed is re-printed here:

 

There’s been a lot of chatter around Washington about federal antitrust regulators’ interest in investigating Google, including stories about an apparent tug of war between agencies. But this interest may be motivated by expanding the agencies’ authority, rather than by any legitimate concern about Google’s behavior.

Last month in an interview with Global Competition Review, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz was asked whether the agency was “investigating the online search market” and he made this startling revelation:

“What I can say is that one of the commission’s priorities is to find a pure Section Five case under unfair methods of competition. Everyone acknowledges that Congress gave us much more jurisdiction than just antitrust. And I go back to this because at some point if and when, say, a large technology company acknowledges an investigation by the FTC, we can use both our unfair or deceptive acts or practice authority and our unfair methods of competition authority to investigate the same or similar unfair competitive behavior . . . . ”

“Section Five” refers to Section Five of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Exercising its antitrust authority, the FTC can directly enforce the Clayton Act but can enforce the Sherman Act only via the FTC Act, challenging as “unfair methods of competition” conduct that would otherwise violate the Sherman Act. Following Sherman Act jurisprudence, traditionally the FTC has interpreted Section Five to require demonstrable consumer harm to apply.

But more recently the commission—and especially Commissioners Rosch and Leibowitz—has been pursuing an interpretation of Section Five that would give the agency unprecedented and largely-unchecked authority. In particular, the definition of “unfair” competition wouldn’t be confined to the traditional measures–reduction in output or increase in price–but could expand to, well, just about whatever the agency deems improper.

Commissioner Rosch has claimed that Section Five could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice”—an effect that a very few commentators support without requiring any evidence that the conduct actually reduces consumer welfare. Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by competitive behavior.

The U.S. has a long tradition of resisting enforcement based on harm to competitors without requiring a commensurate, strong showing of harm to consumers–an economically-sensible tradition aimed squarely at minimizing the likelihood of erroneous enforcement. The FTC’s invigorated interest in Section Five contemplates just such wrong-headed enforcement, however, to the inevitable detriment of the very consumers the agency is tasked with protecting.

In fact, the theoretical case against Google depends entirely on the ways it may have harmed certain competitors rather than on any evidence of actual harm to consumers (and in the face of ample evidence of significant consumer benefits).

Google has faced these claims at a number of levels. Many of the complaints against Google originate from Microsoft (Bing), Google’s largest competitor. Other sites have argued that that Google impairs the placement in its search results of certain competing websites, thereby reducing these sites’ ability easily to access Google’s users to advertise their competing products. Other sites that offer content like maps and videos complain that Google’s integration of these products into its search results has impaired their attractiveness to users.

In each of these cases, the problem is that the claimed harm to competitors does not demonstrably translate into harm to consumers.

For example, Google’s integration of maps into its search results unquestionably offers users an extremely helpful presentation of these results, particularly for users of mobile phones. That this integration might be harmful to MapQuest’s bottom line is not surprising—but nor is it a cause for concern if the harm flows from a strong consumer preference for Google’s improved, innovative product. The same is true of the other claims; harm to competitors is at least as consistent with pro-competitive as with anti-competitive conduct, and simply counting the number of firms offering competing choices to consumers is no way to infer actual consumer harm.

In the absence of evidence of Google’s harm to consumers, then, Leibowitz appears more interested in using Google as a tool in his and Rosch’s efforts to expand the FTC’s footprint. Advancing the commission’s “priority” to “find a pure Section Five case” seems to be more important than the question of whether Google is actually doing anything harmful.

When economic sense takes a back seat to political aggrandizement, we should worry about the effect on markets, innovation and the overall health of the economy.

Josh and I have just completed a white paper on search neutrality/search bias and the regulation of search engines.  The paper is this year’s first in the ICLE Antitrust & Consumer Protection White Paper Series:

If Search Neutrality Is the Answer, What’s the Question?


Geoffrey A. Manne

(Lewis & Clark Law School and ICLE)

and

Joshua D. Wright

(George Mason Law School & Department of Economics and ICLE)

In this paper we evaluate both the economic and non-economic costs and benefits of search bias. In Part I we define search bias and search neutrality, terms that have taken on any number of meanings in the literature, and survey recent regulatory concerns surrounding search bias. In Part II we discuss the economics and technology of search. In Part III we evaluate the economic costs and benefits of search bias. We demonstrate that search bias is the product of the competitive process and link the search bias debate to the economic and empirical literature on vertical integration and the generally-efficient and pro-competitive incentives for a vertically integrated firm to discriminate in favor of its own content. Building upon this literature and its application to the search engine market, we conclude that neither an ex ante regulatory restriction on search engine bias nor the imposition of an antitrust duty to deal upon Google would benefit consumers. In Part V we evaluate the frequent claim that search engine bias causes other serious, though less tangible, social and cultural harms. As with the economic case for search neutrality, we find these non-economic justifications for restricting search engine bias unconvincing, and particularly susceptible to the well-known Nirvana Fallacy of comparing imperfect real world institutions with romanticized and unrealistic alternatives

Search bias is not a function of Google’s large share of overall searches. Rather, it is a feature of competition in the search engine market, as evidenced by the fact that its rivals also exercise editorial and algorithmic control over what information is provided to consumers and in what manner. Consumers rightly value competition between search engine providers on this margin; this fact alone suggests caution in regulating search bias at all, much less with an ex ante regulatory schema which defines the margins upon which search providers can compete. The strength of economic theory and evidence demonstrating that regulatory restrictions on vertical integration are costly to consumers, impede innovation, and discourage experimentation in a dynamic marketplace support the conclusion that neither regulation of search bias nor antitrust intervention can be justified on economic terms. Search neutrality advocates touting the non-economic virtues of their proposed regime should bear the burden of demonstrating that they exist beyond the Nirvana Fallacy of comparing an imperfect private actor to a perfect government decision-maker, and further, that any such benefits outweigh the economic costs.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE PAPER


The press release is here. Notably, the settlement obligates Google to continue product development and to license ITA software on commercially-reasonable terms, seemingly for 5 years.  Frankly, I can’t imagine Google wouldn’t have done this anyway, so the settlement is not likely much of a binding constraint.

Also notable is what the settlement doesn’t seem to do: Impose any remedies intended to “correct” (or even acknowledge) so-called search neutrality issues.  This has to be considered a huge victory for Google and for common sense.  I’m sure Josh and I will have more to say once the pleadings and settlement are available.  Later today or tomorrow we will post a paper we have just completed on the issue of search neutrality.

Unfortunately, this settlement doesn’t put the matter to rest, and we still have to see what the FTC has in store now.  But for now, this is, as I said, a huge victory for Google . . . and for all of us who travel!