There has long been concern that companies like Microsoft and Google – that not only operate ad-supported search engines, but also keep their own companies afloat with various electronics and software offerings – would have the ability to rig their search results in a way that favors themselves. Unfortunately, a recent analysis by SEMrush and the Wall Street Journal has found that there may be some actual merit to this worry.
Leveling the Digital Playing Field
Google search was the focus of SEMrush’s inquiry in December 2016. The company examined 1,000 searches on various terms like “laptops,” “speakers,” and “carbon monoxide detectors” to see exactly what would populate from Google.
Once a search was complete, the data was erased and the search was rerun in order to keep the study as fair as possible. What SEMrush discovered was astonishing: 91 percent of their sample searches yielded a top result from either Google or related companies.
This is not only a problem for customers, it could also be an enormous issue for companies that are purchasing advertisements from the search giant. Micro-auctions for digital advertising space happen each and every time someone searches for anything on Google. Using data provided by advertisers, plus the input from the user, Google determines the best ad to serve and how much it will cost the advertiser. Because spaces are auctioned, this could spell extra cost for advertisers wanting to rank above Google in the results.
Will Google Customers Pay?
Google claims its bids won’t affect the prices that customers pay, but since Google is one of the largest buyers of its own advertising spots, it’s hard to see how that could be the case. After all, in order to rank higher than Google, it would follow a company would need to pay more, just like with any other competitor.
The good news is that since WSJ story on December 15 (2016), a follow-up analysis showed that only 19 percent of the top spots were taken by Google family brands. Although Google refused to comment on the discrepancy, this is an issue that journalists, marketers and SEO professionals should continue to investigate across all ad-based search engines as a check on their already massive power to influence users.