Are Search Engines Biased?

They are, at least according to a new study by Harvard’s Ben Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood. According to professors Edelman and Lockwood, both Google and Yahoo return biased search results. Their proprietary algorithms favor their own products, and they warn, the search engines put their own “interests ahead of the users’ need for unbiased data about the most useful sites on the web.” While impartiality is certainly the ideal, should it come as a surprise that when a user searches for maps on Google, he yields results for Google Maps?

Not according to the research conducted by the professors. They looked at data concerning the information users are “bound” to click on and found that they often preferred competing sites that weren’t at the top of the SERPs.

Edelman and Lockwood found that Google links to its own Gmail, YouTube, and other products three times more often than do other search engines. They also said Yahoo engages in this skewed searching, but in a less blatant fashion than giant Google. The report from the two professors read, “Google asks the public to believe that algorithms rule, and that no bias results from its partnerships, growth aspirations, or related services. We are skeptical.”

A ray of honesty in all this, according to the professors, is Microsoft’s Bing. But Google has something to say about this. Spokesman Adam Kovacevich pointed out that Professor Edelman is a “longtime paid consultant for Microsoft, so it’s no surprise that he would construct a highly biased test that his sponsor would pass and that Google would fail. Google never artificially favors our own services in our organic web search results, and we perform extensive user testing to ensure that search results are ranked in a way that provides users with the most useful answer.”

To prove it, search for “maps” on Google and Yahoo. Each puts its respective map program at the top of the results page. But search for “directions” on Google. The first two results are for Yahoo’s maps.

Edelman and Lockwood remain confident in their results, however. A European Commission investigation is currently looking at the same issue of biased results, and they feel that “the EC’s investigation will indeed reveal that Google has intentionally put its own links first.”

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