Who’s Rigging What? Yelp vs. Google

Who's Rigging What? Yelp vs. Google

When your business relies on search traffic to make money, trying to take down Google might sound a little crazy. But for Yelp, Google is not just a source of traffic, it’s also a competitor—one that it’s fighting tooth and nail to tear apart. The latest weapon? A study that says Google is rigging the game.

Bad Blood

Yelp is in an interesting position. Like most major web properties, a huge chunk of its traffic depends on being well-placed in search results. But as a review site, the service it offers duplicate one offered by Google itself. Look at any local business on Google Maps, for example, and you’ll see reviews left by Google users. That means the relationship between the two entities is somewhat antagonistic.

For Yelp, the problem becomes worse if Google’s own web services outrank it in the search results. Google claims that its algorithms are objective and put the highest quality, most relevant content first. But if you were Yelp, you’d have to wonder how impartially they decide what “high quality” means.

That’s the motivation behind Yelp joining an antitrust lawsuit against Google in Europe, and it’s the motivation behind their new study as well.

The Study

Assembled by researchers from Columbia Law School and Harvard University Business School, the Yelp-sponsored study claims Google sacrifices quality in order to promote its own content. The study constructed two sets of search results: one pulled from Google (with Google sites on the list) and one that offers more “relevant” results. The relevancy-focused results supposedly mimicked Google’s algorithm but without the self promotion. Yelp and its competitor TripAdvisor got more play in the “relevancy” set.

These results were then randomly served to 2,500 study participants. Those who got the “relevancy” set made nearly 50 percent more click-throughs.

The study concludes then that Google is intentionally offering lower quality, less relevant search results in order to plug its own products. If it truly cared about user relevance, Yelp and Tripadvisor would consistently outrank Google’s offerings.

Google’s Ice Cold Response

Yelp’s accusations seem a little absurd given that Yelp is accused of rigging ratings on its site. But while fixing ratings is deceptive, it doesn’t count as a monopoly. According to Yelp, Google has a choke hold on the entire market.

There are other explanations, of course:

  • Google’s products may be ranking well by accident, not by conspiracy. The search algorithm considers many factors including links, content quality, social signals, and clicks. If Google’s products do well by these standards, they would automatically rank well using the same algorithm Google uses for everyone else. The playing field may be perfectly level.
  • Clicks from the study participants may not be a great measure of relevance or quality. Bear in mind that participants are used to seeing real-world search results where Google products are present. When confronted with artificial results with a different set of offerings, they might click more purely because of novelty. The “relevant” results could have been about Care Bears and rainbows and still gotten clicks, just out of curiosity.

But that’s just my speculation. Google’s own response is far more blunt:

“Yelp’s been making these arguments to regulators, and demanding higher placement in search results, for the past five years. This latest study is based on a flawed methodology that focuses on results for just a handful of cherry-picked queries. At Google we focus on trying to provide the best result for our users.”

In other words, Yelp’s a liar.

Do you think Google is rigging the search results in their favor? How does that square with Google hiring its own SEO manager?