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WSJ Claims Google Used Search Engine To Promote Own Products

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Analysis alleges that Google used its search engine results to place adverts for its own products in top spot

Alphabet could potentially be at risk from a regulatory investigation after it was claimed that the Google search engine was favouring Google-related adverts.

The Wall Street Journal alleged that the search engine had placed Google-related adverts such as its Nest smart thermostats or Google Pixel smartphone in the top ad spot above the search results.

That move, if proven, would mean that Google-related adverts occupied the prime advertising spot on search result pages.

google-shared-endorsements-ad-sampleSelf Promotion?

Google of course is already under investigation by the European Union’s antitrust regulator, which alleges that it favours its shopping comparison service over rivals in its search results.

Google has always disputed those charges.

But now according to the Wall Street Journal, products sold by Google or its sister companies, appeared in the most prominent spot in 91 percent of 25,000 recent searches related to such items.

And even worse, in 43 percent of the searches, the top two ads were both for Google-related products.

The newspaper said that it had asked ad data specialist SEMrush to carry out the analysis. From 1 December last year, SEMrush used 25 search terms such as “laptops”, or “speakers”, to “carbon monoxide detectors”.

It used a single desktop PC to carry out the searches, but the machine had its browsing history blocked so it would not influence the search results.

The WSJ alleges that it found that searches for “phones” virtually always began with three consecutive ads for the Google Pixel phone. Likewise 1,000 searches for “laptops” all returned search results that started with a “Chromebook” advert.

The WSJ said that searches for “watches” returned search results that started with an Android smartwatch 98 percent of the time. And searches results for “smoke detector” led with adverts for Nest.

In all those instances, the WSJ alleges, the stores the ads pointed to were owned by Alphabet.

Secret Algorithm

The WSJ shared its search result analysis with Google on 15 December.

But when a second analysis was carried out on 22 December, it found that 22 search results returned a Google or Nest ad in the top spot on 19 percent of the searches.

Google reportedly declined to comment on the disparity.

The research alleges that the results highlight a conflict of interest, whereby companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook are leading sellers of online ad space. Ad space is sold via an auction process.

But these firms also compete with their customers to purchase those online ad space.

A Google “secret algorithm” apparently works out ad placement and prices and uses factors such as an ad’s relevance and quality to help determine which bidder wins the ad space.

Google also reportedly has an in-house committee to help minimise any conflicts of interest.

Whether this development will trigger a fresh investigation into Google’s search engine domination remains to be seen.

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