Microsoft “Research” Discovers The Obvious In Renewed Anti-Trust Attack On Google

bing-google-logosDid you know that the higher a site is listed in search results, the more traffic that site is likely to receive? If you’re a search marketer, or anyone with a dose of common sense, you do. But Microsoft had research conducted to yet again prove this point, in an attempt to influence the ongoing EU antitrust review against Google.

Microsoft’s Hired Gun Does Research

In a Microsoft blog post today, Susan Athey, a Microsoft consultant and professor of economics at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, writes about how she worked with those from Microsoft’s Bing search engine to conduct a “special experiment” where “the best search result” that the “algorithms would otherwise place first” were moved to lower positions on the page. It ran for a few weeks in the US and in other countries.

You might remember Athey from last year, when I wrote about how she mistakenly said that Google requires Google Search to be the default on Android. What’s her research showing this time? The further down the page a listing appears, the less traffic it receives compared to being top ranked.

Lower Listings Get Less Traffic

From Microsoft’s blog post:

Moving the best result down just two positions (from first to third) reduced traffic to that site by half.

The diversion effect becomes much more pronounced as a site is moved further down the page. A site that is moved from the first position to the tenth position typically will lose about 85 percent of its traffic.

A site that is moved from the second position to the ninth loses about 75 percent of its traffic.

Similarly, sites that are listed higher than before gain traffic:

A site promoted from fifth to first gets a 340 percent increase in visitors from search, and the results are similar when you focus only on users who go to the site and stick around for a period of time. Imagine telling a business that they can more than quadruple their customer base overnight!

Many studies over the years have shown the same thing, such as this one from 2010. Here’s a history of them over time. In fact, so many have been done we often don’t bother reporting on them. It’s like reporting that the sky is blue.

What’s New? Nothing But A Not-So-Hidden Attack

So, Microsoft’s research is breaking absolutely no new ground here. Indeed, as I said earlier, it’s only confirming what common sense tells anyone — something Microsoft itself admits in the post:

While the results of this study quantify the impact of what most people know intuitively, they demonstrate that the order and manner in which a search engine presents results powerfully affects how much traffic websites will receive.

So what is new? That Microsoft has laced this report with language like “manipulation” and “divert” that’s designed to support its contention, one that it has typically made through supporting proxy companies and organizations, that Google is pushing its own content over “better” things. You know, because as the report says:

That is a very tempting thing to do for a search engine if the site it is promoting is its own affiliated website.

Microsoft goes on at the end of the post to say it has submitted the study to the EU for review, out of its concern:

The manipulation of results to preference a search engine’s own products and services is one of four areas of concern identified by competition authorities investigating Google’s business practices in Europe, where the world’s largest Internet company controls more than 90 percent of the search market.

According to Joaquin Almunia, the European Commission vice president responsible for competition policy, “Google displays links to its own vertical search services differently than it does for links to competitors.”

Vice President Almunia explained that “[w]e are concerned that this may result in preferential treatment compared to those of competing services, which may be hurt as a consequence.”

Microsoft Does What Google Does (And Sometimes Worse)

Indeed, Google does display links to its own vertical search results differently. So does Bing. With that, let me supplement Microsoft’s research. Let’s do some side-by-side searches. First, a search for “fitbit” on Google and Bing:

fitbit google vs bing

On the left is Google, and the big red box outlines where Google has pushed something “above” the “best” result determined by its algorithm, which is the first unpaid result leading to the Fitbit site. What’s above it? Ads, then further ads that are part of its all-ads Google Shopping service.

In contrast, while Bing also has an ad above Fitbit, there are fewer of them. Microsoft’s own partially ad-powered shopping results come after Fitbit. Hurray! Microsoft’s Bing beats Google in “diverting” less. But then again:

mortgage rates - Bing vs Google

In the search above for “mortgage rates,” Google’s ads again push down the “best” match from Zillow. But Bing’s ads, then Bing own news results, pushes the “best” result from Bankrate almost off the visible page.

Ads can make a big difference. Consider this search:

iphone - Bing vs Google

Here, Google isn’t showing ads about Apple in a search for “iphone” (they appear on the side). Bing is showing them above Apple (and to the side), so the “best” result is pushed down more than on Google.

Do this for other searches, by the way, and Google might be worse than Bing with more ads. Indeed, in all of these cases, you can search and search to come up with examples that seem to position one service over the other. That’s the point — neither is right or wrong but more the same.

Pressing on, both Google and Bing have their own flight search services:

sna to sfo flight

The screenshot above shows how in both cases, these services push the “best” result of Expedia far down the page in a search for “sna to sfo flight.” Expedia is a bit further below on Bing, because Bing’s own services take up more space.

Finally, there’s this:

pictures of flowers

That’s a search for “pictures of flowers” on both Google and Bing, and it shows how they both push down the “best” results by deliberately putting actual pictures of flowers above a webpage listing. How arrogant. How manipulative. How favoring their own image search engines.

And how correct for the user. That’s what the Microsoft study deliberately avoids, the entire concept that vertical search can be helpful, can be beneficial to the user, that Bing does it for these reasons itself. In fact, that benefit to the consumer is the reason the US Federal Trade Commission found nothing wrong with Google having vertical listings earlier this year.

It’s pretty clear that Microsoft is worried that the EU, which is long overdue for making its ruling regarding Google, may go the way that the FTC did, in clearing Google. This report is designed to add pressure. But then, I’m just stating another obvious fact, like the report itself.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Features: Analysis | Google: Antitrust | Google: Critics | Microsoft: Business Issues | Stats: Search Behavior | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.tylerherrick.com Tyler Herrick

    I hope Bing dies.

  • John O’Connor

    I would like to point out that the best result on fitbit (ads included) is for fitbit.com official on the google side of the equation. So the best result has the same result for a Google fitbit search.

  • Durant Imboden

    Susan Athey’s use of the term “best search result” strikes me as being naive. If she’d said “algorithmic search result” or “organic search result” or something similar, I might cut her some slack, but “best search result?” What’s best depends on who’s searching and on the intent behind the search.

  • Fili Wiese

    Did anyone submit this post to the EU, out of concern of Microsoft’s sad behaviour? Just wondering :-)

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Exactly. That’s another flaw in this research, the assumption that the top web result is necessarily the best search result, when a vertical listing might be better.

    Worse, my assumption is that this test was all about a case of “10 blue links” rather than a page with ads, vertical boxes and so on — yet it’s applied to a case involving vertical search results.

    It’s hard to say, however, because the actual research wasn’t shown.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I think Bing actually does better here, getting Fitbit up higher. But ads are very dynamic. Keep reloading, you might find a display where Google doesn’t have them, or Bing doesn’t have them.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Good for you, Bing! Let’s see more research come out into the field! Obviously from the reactions in the SEO community you have a lot of ground to cover.

  • http://reelseo.com/about/grant Grant Crowell

    The FTC recently put out an update to Disclosures guide for digital/online advertising, which has significance to the search industry (both search engines and search marketers). You can download a free copy of the report at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2013/03/dotcom.shtm

  • Andy

    Bing for the win…g

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh

    Why? Because you, as a business owner would sit back and allow your baby to be crushed by competition? This is business. Dog eat dog. I give props to M$ for having the guts to invest themselves into this.

  • Spann

    I haven’t read all the prior studies but I believe most (and certainly the Chitika study) show that higher rank is associated with more clicks, but do not control for “quality” – thus these studies do not foreclose the possibility that lower ranked sites may get few clicks because they are less relevant. This study appears to control for quality and shows that rank by itself, even controlling for responsiveness or “quality” of the site for the particular query, results in fewer clicks. From what I’ve seen, this is in fact a new result and it dispells an argument that I’ve heard when discussing studies like Chitika’s. I don’t think it’s groundbreaking research, but from an experimental research perspective it’s important, and in any event it’s not deserving of the mean spirited sarcastic tone of this post.

  • Spann

    From an experimental design perspective the assumption identified above actually isn’t a problem. The goal presumably was to show that rank affects clicks setting aside quality (or in other words that the rank-click correlation isn’t confounded by quality). By moving top ranked sites down, this is tested either way. In any event, presumably the search engines have some basis to say that top results are “better” on average for the relevant query (generate more clicks when rank is averaged, for example), the fact that it may not be best for a particular user is simply averaged out – that’s the basis of statistics.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    This report doesn’t appear to control for quality. It makes an assumption that whatever the first web result is, that’s the best result. It might not be. And that’s the heart of any report trying to make assumptions about whether searchers are harmed or not. Of course, that’s a further assumption, since Microsoft hasn’t shared the actual report.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    So let’s say you have a site that’s hacked with malware, and it starts ranking tops for “payday loan.” You can average the clicks out all you want — it’s not the best site for that search. There’s nothing in this summary of the research that actually addresses the quality (or not) of whatever was moved above the supposed “best” result. The report is really about predicted clickthrough rates on search listings — which, as I’ve explained, has long been reported on already.

  • Spann

    In that situation you wouldn’t get a rank effect at all – if you search for “Bruce Springsteen” and the first result is a payday loan site and the second is “Springsteen lyrics”, then the top rank wouldn’t get a large percent of the clicks – the rank effect would disappear. Since that didn’t happen here, it’s likely the result set was reasonable. Within the pool of reasonable results, if you have sites X, Y and Z and you show them to enough users who search for “Springsteen” while altering the display order, you’ll find that say 50% click on X, 30% on Y and 20% on Z. Because the order has been randomized across many searches and users, this reflects a “true” quality order for the average search for “Springsteen”. If you then put X in the first rank and it gets 65% of clicks and in the 3rd spot and it gets 35% of clicks, then that tells you that there is a rank effect that is separate from quality of the result. It sounds like that’s what this study did.
    That is different than the other studies on CTR by rank. Surprising? No. Different and an addition to collective knowledge? Yes.

  • Spann

    I agree that it’s hard to know without seeing the actual study. But by moving the results around, they control for quality. If you have one result in spot 1 and a different result in spot 3, one of them is better than the other. What this study seems to show is that no matter which one you put first, the top rank gets more clicks. Unless the results are all the same (just randomly selected), then this controls for quality. I imagine that what actually happened is what I describe in the comment below, so they have some basis to say that a link is “better” than another. But unless the result set they tested is just way off, it doesn’t matter, either way it would show that rank affects clicks regardless of quality. Of course that is different than saying searchers are harmed. I don’t know enough to have an opinion on that, I’m just talking about the “science”.
    BTW, it is not the case that people inherently select rank 1 more than other positions in any human search endeavor. If you showed a vertical list of pictures of 10 people and asked which was most attractive, you would not see a significant rank effect (you’d actually see a small preference for the bottom result). So the search engine rank effect results from a perception of expertise in the ordering, that the ordering does in fact reflect quality.

  • http://twitter.com/MrMazharShah Mazhar Shah

    Hi,

    Good post so for. I think Bing is improving day by day with following Google but its search results is not smooth like Google.

  • http://itnewsweek.com/ Deniel

    Interesting research…

  • Andrew Agnello

    Another example of delusional academia having to conduct research to understand basic common sense. Good thing Susan doesn’t have to function in the real world.

  • http://www.seopro.co.za/ Kim Troskie

    The first search result is the most well optimized website, not the best search result.

  • david mcmillan

    I use each one for different reason. Works out very good. To depend only on one, results could be bad. A few of us found out the hard way. But was corrected

  • http://twitter.com/YoungbloodJoe Joe Youngblood

    Danny, Glad to see you included travel in this. But what about YouTube in video universal (nearly dominates the whole thing), what about Google+ places, etc.. When google first started they used signals from other websites for ranking purposes, now if you use Google+ Author rank on any page it supposedly helps, so now it’s using signals from Google to rank. The garden walls are getting higher.

    I also think Bing would concede their vertical search initiatives if it meant an anti-competition slap on Google.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    YouTube certainly has grown, in my view. Wrote about that before. Agreed on how authorship turned into Google+.

  • Brenda Thompson

    uptil I saw the bank draft for $6297, I didn’t believe that my mom in-law really bringing in money part-time on there computar.. there best friend has been doing this for less than 20 months and resantly repayed the debts on their mini mansion and purchased a brand new Renault 4. I went here, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • dorabowers

    Sarah. if you think Dennis`s blurb is really great… last thursday I bought a gorgeous Chevrolet Corvette from having made $5864 this – five weeks past and also 10k this past-month. this is certainly the best work I’ve had. I started this 5 months ago and right away began to make minimum $71, per-hour. I went to this web-site, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • Yeye Yates

    Interesting!
    Have just recently launched a collectibles online store and all SEO steps
    done focused strongly to appear in the upper tier of Google. Based on
    ColbriTool analysis output, majority of search inbound traffic are coming
    from Google – but still, its better to double the efforts to include Bing and
    Yahoo. Thanks for sharing this article.

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