January 19, 2017

TILTING THE PLAYING FIELD: Google Uses Its Search Engine to Hawk Its Products.

A Wall Street Journal analysis found that ads for products sold by Google and its sister companies appeared in the most prominent spot in 91% of 25,000 recent searches related to such items; and 43% of the time, the top two ads both were for Google-related products.

The analysis, run by search-ad-data firm SEMrush, examined 1,000 searches each on 25 terms, from “laptops” to “speakers” to “carbon monoxide detectors.” SEMrush ran the searches Dec. 1 on a desktop computer, blocking past web-surfing history that could influence results.

The results show how Google uses its dominant search engine to boost other parts of its business and give it an edge over competitors, which include some of its biggest advertising customers.

A Google spokesman said the company has “consciously and carefully designed” its marketing programs not to affect other advertisers.

The Journal’s analysis highlights a rarely discussed apparent conflict of interest in the $187 billion digital-advertising industry: The leading sellers of online ad space, including Google, Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp., also compete with their customers for that space.

Google searches for “phones” virtually always began with three consecutive ads for Google’s Pixel phones. All 1,000 searches for “laptops” started with a Chromebook ad. “Watches” began with an Android smartwatch ad 98% of the time. And “smoke detector” led with back-to-back ads for internet-connected alarms made by Nest, a company owned by Google parent Alphabet. In all instances, the stores these ads pointed to were also owned by Alphabet.

There’s nothing wrong with a company hyping its own products and services, but smart shoppers might want to shop around for different search engines, too.

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