How Google Search Sold Out

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S1: The subcommittee will come to order without objection, the chair is authorized to declare recess a few weeks back.

S2: The heads of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google appeared before a House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust law. They were there to testify about the power wielded by their respective companies in relation to their competition. It was the first time that the CEOs of these giant tech companies appeared together before Congress and Congress had a lot of questions.

S1: The hearing took five hours. So are you saying that these people aren’t being truthful? Google’s response was to threaten to delist Yelp entirely. You think they would choose to stay in a relationship that is characterized by bullying, fear and panic? Towards the end of the hearing, Representative Pramila Paul directed a question to Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO. She wanted to know if Google Search was prioritizing Google owned products over their competitors owned companies. Is Google steering advertising revenue to Google search?

S3: Congressman users come to Google search it is that traffic? And you know, that’s where our source of revenue comes from. So we are focused on providing users the information they are looking for. We work hard.

S2: That answer didn’t exactly make headlines, but I didn’t even finish before Representative Jay Paul asked her next question, but that rushed, seemingly innocuous answer. We are focused on providing users the information they are looking for marks a fundamental shift in the way Google thinks about what it is and what it does.

S3: They’ve made statements like this publicly where they believe their mission is to help users find information, and that is different from helping users navigate the web.

S2: This is Adrian Jefferys, an investigative reporter with The Mark-Up.

S3: I noticed this trend personally because the way I use Google is as a search engine. I want to see what’s on the Web. I want to read through 20 websites about a topic when I’m researching something.

S2: What Adrian is describing is something more akin to the Google of 20 years ago, a page full of links and bright blue, all of them inviting you to explore a Web page with just a click of your mouse. Larry Page, one of Google’s founders, said in 2004 that the company’s goal was to, quote, get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible, end quote. But now Adrian was noticing Google talk about its mission differently, that it’s about finding information instead of navigating the Web. And she noticed something else about how Google worked. Increasingly when searching for something on Google, there was no need to then go and read 20 websites, no reason to get out of Google or click on any websites at all. So Adriana and her colleague at the Mark-Up Leontien decided to put this observation to the test by running 15000 searches to see where Google would point them.

S3: We wanted to see how much is Google trying to keep people inside Google’s ecosystem, either with these direct answers that appear on the page so that you don’t need to click any websites or by sending people to a Google property like Google flights or YouTube or Google Maps or Waze or any of the other places.

S4: Right. There’s so many of them. Today on the show, Google search engine is getting a lot of eyeballs on Google, and that’s bad news for all the other businesses that rely on the dominant search engine to reach customers. I’m Celeste Headlee, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary, and you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S5: Adrian, along with her reporting partner, Leon Yine, wanted to measure exactly how often Google search results were leading back to its own answers or own products, it was already clear that Google was pointing users back to its own products more and more frequently over the last decade. But the extent to which this was happening was unknown. So they started with the data.

S3: We grabbed at the searches from Google Trends from this several month period from October 2013 to January 2020. And it ended up being about 15000 search queries. And we ran those queries ourselves, captured the page, and then we analyzed the page to see what stuff was Google, what stuff was not Google, where things were pointing.

S2: So you did 15000 searches. Did you do them both on a desktop and a mobile phone?

S3: We did, actually. We ended up analyzing just the mobile searches for the study because Google actually sees more searches on mobile.

S2: I mean, the results are incredible. I think that in one particular case, you did a search and if you were looking at it on an iPhone, nothing was pointing outside of Google, is that right?

S3: We broke it down two ways. We looked at the entire first page of search results. And when we looked at that, we found the average was 41 percent was Google ecosystem stuff. We also looked at the first screen on an iPhone 10. And when we looked at just that first screen, we did find searches where it was all Google’s stuff.

S5: On average, nearly half of the first page of results from a Google search directed the user to Google products 41 percent of the page on an iPhone 10, 63 percent of the first page was Google’s own content. This is a 180 degree turn from the search engines early design. Back in 2004, Larry Page gloated that Google was better than its competitors, AOL and Amazon, because, quote, their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results. It provides the portals results. Years later, Google is doing the same thing.

S3: But Page criticized AOL for there are basically two ways that Google will answer your queries directly on the page when you type a question. So if you want to know when is Valentine’s Day, it’ll pop up just the date in a box and you don’t need the source for that. That date comes from Google’s knowledge graph, which is a database of what they call entities. Basically people, places, things, ideas and knowledge. Graph is from sources that Google really that’s and there is some degree of humans saying, OK, can we trust CIA World Factbook? OK, we’ll take all of their data and put it into knowledge graph. The other way that you can get direct answers on the page is through a system called Featured Snippets. And this is where Google will look basically at the top ranking search result and grab some text out of the page and display it on the search results page. So you might get something from like Wiki, how it could be, you know, can can my dog eat sushi is an example I’ve used.

S2: But you’re right. I mean, some of them are like, what are the symptoms of covid? But then some of them are subjective. You pointed in one of your pieces to one where it said, how do I get a date?

S3: Right, exactly. I will say for the covid stuff and in general for health queries, those usually go through the knowledge panel. They try to be really careful about certain categories. They call it your money or your life, finance and health, because there’s a lot of opportunity for misinformation and fraud. That being said, I have come across a lot of misinformation about MSG, for example, popping up in featured snippets.

S6: There’s there have been a lot of examples of misinformation or offensive content ending up in those featured snippets, which doesn’t look great for Google, because when you look at it on the search results page it it’s got a box around it. It’s at the top. It looks very authoritative and it looks like Google is endorsing this answer.

S4: Misinformation is a problem, especially when that bad information is automatically scraped into these featured snippets and then displayed prominently at the top of search results.

S5: But Adrianne says this focus on providing answers has bigger implications.

S3: I spoke to Chris Cummings, who is the CEO of a company called Curiosity Media, and they have a site called Spanish DECT dot com, and it is a Spanish English dictionary with some other Spanish English learning resources. And he showed me what it looks like for searches that have a Google Translate box at the top and searches that don’t. So if you search for, I think, Spanish dictionary, you will get Spanish. Dick Dotcom is the first result and they get about 85 percent of the clicks on that search. But for a search where Google Translate comes up first, that percentage drops to he told me about two percent click through so they could be the top results. So if you search for like ten error or another Spanish word, Google Translate pops up that box at the top. It’s like tinner to have the translation is right there and then Spanish DECT is right under it. The very top result under that Google Translate box, he said that’s a two percent click through. And he did show me we were screen sharing and he showed me some of these searches and how abysmal the click through rate was. And he said something like, you know, if if we get two percent click through, like there is no business to run here. We only exist because there are still some queries where they don’t stick that box up at the top.

S5: And it’s not just small businesses and individual sites like Kris’s. The changes to search results can affect entire industries.

S3: Google really has started to reorient itself around figuring out exactly what the user wants and getting them as close to the answer as possible. So whereas in the beginning Google might have said, OK, you’re looking for a flight, we’ll send you to a flight search engine. Now, Google says we don’t want to send you from our search engine to another search engine. We want to get further down that funnel to get you closer to the thing that you’re really looking for. So we’ll just take over all of the steps in between.

S2: I mean, it’s important to keep in mind the effect this has. And since you mentioned flights, this is a big bone of contention because now Google has Google flights and Google hotels and they really quickly became the market leaders. How does the change in how Google sees its core business affect the businesses that are trying to come up as a result on Google search?

S3: It affects them negatively and it hits them two ways, especially for travel, because not only is a site like Expedia getting less traffic from consumers searching on Google, all of a sudden Expedia now has to pay more to Google to advertise in order to get more referrals. Expedia and booking Dotcom are, by third party estimates, some of Google’s biggest advertisers like top 10. So it is a little odd to see Google competing against advertisers in this one vertical. Barry Diller, who was chairman of the Expedia group, basically called them out for this and said they’re competing against their own advertisers. I think it’s bad practice and that dynamic is really true for everyone vying for attention on the Web because Google has so many vertical businesses and it’s answering these queries directly on the search results page when you’re just looking for an information based query. So it’s hard to be publishing on the Internet right now and not be competing with Google in some way. This isn’t new, this is something that Google has seen going back to at least 2006, 2007, there were emails that were published by the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee from Google executives back in 2007 where they said basically we see that we’re sending a lot of traffic to job sites. We’ve noticed because we have all of this data about what everybody on the Web is searching. We’re sending a lot of traffic to job sites. How do we get into that market? How do we get some of the money that we’re sending toward monster dot com and jobs, dot com? That’s something that they have repeated over and over as they noticed because of all the data that they have on what people are looking for online. They’re seeing what people are searching for. They’re realizing which categories are potentially lucrative and then they’re building their own products for those categories for customers.

S2: This is not always bad news or it may feel like an improvement if I’m looking for the date of Father’s Day in twenty, twenty one. It’s nice to see that answer immediately and not have to visit a website. I traveled a lot before the pandemic shut that part of my business down and I remember discovering that I could type round trip flight to London in the Google search box and get a list of possible flights right at the top. I didn’t have to go to Expedia or Travelocity because the information was right there. It felt efficient, like I was saving a step or two. But I eventually discovered that Google Flights wasn’t showing me all of the flight options. It’s not ranked as the best airfare search engine. So I not only had to visit other websites to get all the options, but I had to page down past all the Google results in order to find those Web sites. It sounds like such a small change in behavior, but it matters so. What is happening, do you think, as a result, I mean, as you say, this has been going on for a while and Google has been getting better and better and better at it. What do you think the impact is of this?

S3: I think it’s influenced what companies are starting up on the Web. I think there are some areas that are a little bit off limits now. You’re not going to start a flights aggregator nowadays because the space is so dominated by Google and you’re not going to start a maps company. Some spaces are just sort of foreclosed. You’re just like not looking for opportunities there. Antitrust experts will say that means we’re missing out on innovation that we could have access to.

S5: And here we are back at the antitrust hearings that took place recently, even though it was the first time the CEOs from Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google all testified together. It was far from the first time they’ve been accused of crowding their competitors out of the market. Google has been fined billions in Europe. It’s also under investigation by 50 attorneys general. But Adriaan says the nature of Google’s business itself and the way these Internet giants are structured makes it more difficult than ever to measure the harm that monopolization can cause.

S3: It’s really hard to quantify what we’re missing out on, and I think that’s one of the challenges that antitrust regulators face is establishing the harm to the market. Traditionally, you look at prices in antitrust and say you’ve got a company that’s dominating the market. They can control prices, they can arbitrarily raise prices and people just have to pay them. But that dynamic has been so skewed by the business model of the Internet where you just give away your thing for free and then collect data and monetize that. So it’s really hard to measure the harm that people are seeing from a free product.

S2: Are we sort of seeing the results of not knowing how to handle Google and other tech companies like Facebook at their inception? I mean, it was this just a fact that it’s now a little bit late because so many years went by when we weren’t entirely sure what we were looking at?

S3: I think that’s definitely true. And and there have been efforts to look at Google for exactly these issues in the past, even in the U.S. And in 2012, there was this investigation at the FTC into antitrust issues with Google. And one thing that struck me was all of these members of Congress wrote letters to the chairman of the FTC saying, we’re really concerned that you’re looking into Google. We’ve heard rumors that you’re planning to use this section of the law in a way that we think is overreach. And some of them even had language that was like Google is a great innovative company and American Internet success story. And Google is still one of the most trusted brands, I think, by Americans. And I do think that helped them escape scrutiny for a long time, as well as these new Internet business models that made it a little bit difficult to predict what long term problems might come up with competition.

S4: Where do you see this going? Is there a plateau in how much Google information can come up as a result of a Google search having reached the peak?

S6: I don’t think so. I think Google will get better and better at answering people’s queries, and it’s already pretty good if there is no regulatory intervention that stops the company from going down this path. I see it just accelerating.

S4: Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you. Adrianne Jefferys is an investigative reporter at The Mark-Up. You can read more of Adriana and Leon’s reporting at the Mark-Up dot org. That’s it for today’s show. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. TBD as part of the larger What Next Family DVD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Celeste Headlee. Thanks so much for listening. I’m hosting TBD for the next month and would love to hear your thoughts about the show so you can find me on Twitter. It’s at Celeste Headlee. Have a great weekend. Mary Harris will be back in your feed on Monday.