(Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

When you go to Google for anything, be it a weather report or a phone number or an explanation of string theory, you assume that the top results will always be the very best. Those are, at least, the only ones you click: Studies suggest it’s a rare, rare Googler who bothers scrolling past search result number five.

But according to a highly critical new paper out from legal scholar Tim Wu, Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca and data scientists at Yelp, many of us are totally missing out on the information that’s most relevant, and critical, to our lives.

[What you don’t know about Internet algorithms is hurting you]

They claim, essentially, that Google manipulates local search results to favor Google products: meaning that, whenever you search a restaurant, doctor or local business, Google will show you results from its empire of sites … even if there are demonstrably better options out there.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Yelp vice president of public policy Luther Lowe uses this example: If a parent searches “pediatrician NYC,” he or she will, in a prominent first-page listing, see the names of seven pediatricians who happen to have Google+ or Google+ Local pages. The parent will not, however, see the names of Melissa Varma, Rebecca Farber or Julissa Baez — three New York pediatricians whom Google otherwise ranks highly and who have really killer patient ratings … but on the sites of Google’s competitors.

“The Google organic ranking algorithm does a great job at identifying helpful content on the Web,” Lowe said. “But it’s sadly not being deployed in the most common user behavior on Google: local search.”

According to Yelp, from one-third to one-half of all Google searches are local.


The Google “OneBox” in action. You’ve seen these guys. (Google)

They primarily involve something called the “Local OneBox” — the special, extra-prominent list of seven links that Google displays at the top of local search results.

Local OneBox takes up a big chunk of first-page real estate, frequently at the very top of the page, which means people are disproportionately more likely to click into it than they are into regular links. Local OneBox also pulls exclusively from Google’s versions of specialized search sites, such as Google+ Local.

When data scientists from Yelp asked more than 2,500 people to review the OneBox results, however, they found that users overwhelmingly clicked pages from other review sites (i.e. TripAdvisor, ZocDoc, Yelp itself) over the ones from Google+ Local.

Moreover, Google’s own algorithmic system for rating and ranking the quality of Web pages — called, appropriately, PageRank — usually places Google+ Local results well below those from competitors, Yelp says.

“The fact that Google’s own algorithm would provide better results suggests that Google is making a strategic choice to display their own content, rather than choosing results that consumers would prefer,” the paper claims.

You can actually see this for yourself with a little bit of intermediate Googling. Try searching a term like “dermatologist” or “mechanic” or “pancake house” on Google, and check the results. Then open another tab and search the same thing, but put this parenthetical at the end: (site:zocdoc.com OR site:yelp.com OR site:healthgrades.com OR site:tripadvisor.com OR site:plus.google.com).

Essentially, the first search shows you Google’s standard results, with its own reviews given top billing; the second search shows you how Google’s algorithm actually ranks the quality and relevance of available reviews within that specific set of sites.

There is, as always, a lot of salt to be had with these findings: chief among them, the fact that Yelp is competing fiercely against Google for real estate in the local reviews space and has actually joined with other reviews sites to lobby E.U. antitrust officials investigating Google’s search practices. (The majority of the white paper is actually about regulatory issues, like monopoly and consumer harm — though that’s a little above our pay grade over here.)

On top of that, the Google search algorithm is complicated: It orders search results according to a wide and ever-changing array of signals, some or many of which this research may have failed to capture. Google has, predictably, called the research flawed.

“This isn’t new — Yelp’s been making these arguments to regulators, and demanding higher placement in search results, for the past five years,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries.”

Even if that’s the case, however — which Yelp, of course, disputes — it’s worth taking these types of corporate motivations into account when you conduct your next Google search. The majority of Internet users will click the first or second or third link that Google serves up, whatever it is; but when people are making decisions about their health or their money or even their next meal, that type of uncritical clicking could have consequences.

Our advice? Consider scrolling past that Local OneBox, or affixing some kind of parameters like the above parenthetical to your next important search. And remember that not even Google — or Yelp, or TripAdvisor, or ZocDoc, for the matter — is necessarily looking out 100 percent for you.

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