Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date

2015

Center/Program

Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts

Abstract

While Google is known primarily as a search engine, it has increasingly developed and promoted its own content as an alternative to results from other websites. By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to use its dominance in search to gain customers for this content. This may reduce consumer welfare if the internal content is inferior to organic search results. In this paper, we provide a legal and empirical analysis of this practice in the domain of online reviews. We first identify the conditions under which universal search would be considered anticompetitive. We then empirically investigate the impact of this practice on consumer welfare. To investigate, we implement a randomized controlled trial in which we vary the search results that subjects are shown - comparing Google’s current policy of favorable treatment of Google content to results in which external content is displayed. We find that users are roughly 40% more likely to engage with universal search results (which receive favored placement) when the results are organically determined relative to when they contain only Google content. To shed further light on the underlying mechanisms, we show that users are more likely to engage with the OneBox when there are more reviews, holding content constant. This suggests that Google is reducing consumer welfare by excluding reviews from other platforms in the OneBox.

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