Users expect Google to serve them the best, most relevant answers from across the web when they search for something as crucial as a pediatrician in Manhattan, a bicycle repair shop in Miami, or a hotel in Los Angeles. But Google doesn’t use its standard organic search algorithm to produce responses to local search queries. Instead, it promotes a more limited set of results drawn from reviews it collects (formerly Google+ Local) over the more relevant ones users would get from using Google's organic search algorithm.
Google should stop giving preferential treatment to the reviews it collects in place of content from the web that is more relevant. By giving itself an unfair advantage, it betrays consumers' trust in Google to match them with the most helpful information. Google doesn’t even index its review content (i.e., run content it collects through the same meritocratic processes). How can Google reviews always be the most relevant?
Local search may be the most obvious example of how Google strays from “focus on the user,” but other design decisions also deprive the web of oxygen with the apparent goal of keeping people on Google.com longer. It doesn’t have to be this way.
In 2004, Larry Page told Playboy Magazine, “We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we’re happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that’s the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information…. [Competing search engines don’t] necessarily provide the best results; it provides [their] results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible.”
Today, Google has embraced the model abhorred by its co-founders in 2004. What changed?
When users perform a search on Google, information in the search results page comes from one of three buckets: ads, “answers,” and “organic” ten blue links. Ads and ten blue links aren’t controversial. Google isn’t a charity and should have the right to run advertisements. “Ten blue links” are the meritocratic list of sites sorted according to relevance based on a users’ query. When Page did his interview in 2004, it was only ads and ten blue links. Beginning in 2007, the third category – “answers” – began to emerge. Answers are complicated.
Seeing a “4” on the screen when a consumer enters [2+2] is handy, but it’s not without cost. If someone runs a calculator website, showing the “4” could lead to the calculator website's traffic decline. Google must, therefore, make tradeoffs. These tradeoffs typically are good for users, but not always. As Eric Schmidt once said, “we built Google for users, not websites.” That’s reasonable, especially when it comes to immutable facts. Giving billions of users a quick answer to [2+2] seems like it outweighs the cost of lost traffic to the calculator website operator.
But what if the “answer” being served up is [best pediatrician mountain view ca?]. The web has a rich, competitive offering of services to help answer such a question, yet Google gives itself exclusive access to the prime real estate of the page. By doing this, users are worse off.
Google should embrace two goals:
1. Match users with the best possible information at the top of results. For local search (the most common category of search), this means creating an interoperable box and ranking Google’s content alongside other business listing pages across the web. An organic, merit-based process should pin the most relevant businesses from the web to the map. That box should provide a clear path to the source content, not a small link designed to generate a low CTR.
2. For other forms of answers (Wikipedia-powered information, recipes, etc.) rather than offering small links designed to generate low CTR, answer boxes should encourage users to leave Google.com and visit the source content for themselves. The box itself should be a clear path to the web-based information powering the box.
Google can make design choices that protect the health of the open web and give answers to users. That's what it means to focus on the user.
What’s the story behind this website?
It’s inspired in part by a 2012 site launched by Twitter and Facebook engineers in response to Google’s ill-conceived “Search Plus Your World” feature which pushed Google+ social results above more relevant results from services like Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, a few months later Google launched “Google+ Local” – a feature that did the exact same thing, but for local search. Though Google has mostly abandoned the “Google+” branding, it continues to give preferential treatment to its own content, even thoughit hasn’t had to go through the trusted algorithm.
In 2014, a group of local search companies in collaboration with some consumer groups launched a version of this site calling for the European Commission to drop its settlement talks with Google and bring formal antitrust charges.
Employees of Google aren’t bad people. They don’t want to directly or inadvertently strangle the web. This website exists to encourage Googlers to advocate internally for better design decisions which serve the dual purpose of provide answers to users while oxygenating the internet with meaningful traffic.
Is this just an attempt to replace Google’s local results with results from Yelp or TripAdvisor?
No. The goal is to restore a competitive process where the content that “wins” the box did the best job at helping consumers, and the judge is Google’s own organic processes and quality scoring. Google’s own content can and should be a part of the competition, but that’s not possible if Google “wins” by default every time.
How do you know what’s best for users in local search?
Our goal is to ensure that consumers searching using Google are matched with the best information, not just content powered by Google reviews. Consumers have shown the best way to do that is using Google’s own organic search algorithm to identify the most relevant results — regardless of their source — from across the web.
We even built a tool to show this is easy and would result in better results for consumers:
It’s Google’s website. Shouldn’t Google be allowed to do whatever it wants?
Most of the time yes, but not if Google is acting anti-competitively by abusing its dominant position in organic search to tie its vertical search products, depriving consumers of relevant results, stifling competition and impairing innovation. Consumers need to be able to access competitive sources of information from across the web; by tying its own vertical search products to organic search results, Google prevents this.
What about voice search and Google Home devices? Won't this solution be obsolete?
Voice-based searching makes nailing down the principle of non-descriminatory interoperability all the more imperative. Google can provide consumers with answers while rewarding content creators.
What is the Focus on the User - Local widget?
Some engineers at Yelp and TripAdvisor built the Focus on the User - Local widget as a side project and launched it with the European version of this site. The code is open-sourced on GitHub so that anyone can see how it works or make it even better. This website is a collaboration among local search companies designed to educate consumers and policymakers about consumer harm brought about when Google+ is artificially promoted in local search.
Consumer Watchdog and Fight for the Future endorse the Focus on the User project as an important way to educate consumers and policymakers about Google’s search practices.
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