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An eye tracking study, commissioned by ICOMP (Initiative forÂ aÂ Competitive Online Marketplace) has revealed that Googleâs proposed commitments relating to the display of rival links, continue to weigh heavily in favour of Googleâs own services and will not help rivals to compete against the company. The European Commission, following nearly five years of complaints from a wide range of European businesses and consumer groups, has expressed concern that Google is abusing its dominant position in Internet Search, to direct consumers to its own sites â rather than those which are the âbest resultâ for a search query.
In response to these charges Google has been asked to propose remedies that will stop this abuse and prevent it happening in future. However, Googleâs second attempt at providing a workable, fair and effective solution (the first was rejected by the commission and online stakeholders in July) appears not only to fail in halting the abuse, but, as this research shows, actually makes the abuse worse.
The study, conducted by The Institute of Communication and Media ResearchÂ (IKM)Â at theÂ German Sports UniversityÂ CologneÂ (DSHS), examines where people look on the page of search results, how long they look at individual links and where they âclickâ as a result. The search results pages used in the study were taken directly from Googleâs proposals in its second round of commitments.
Key findings of the study are:
1.Â Â Â Â Â Â Googleâs âSponsoredâ results consistently attract the largestÂ amountÂ ofÂ the usersâ totalÂ visual attention
2.Â Â Â Â Â Â âAlternativeÂ search sitesâ do not draw enough visual attention to prompt the users to click on them
3.Â Â Â Â Â Â VisualÂ attention for organic links is negligible compared to the âimage enhancedâ Google elements placed above them
For example; results for the search term âiPodâ reveal that thumbnailÂ productÂ picturesÂ guide the visual attentionÂ ofÂ users toÂ âGoogleÂ ShoppingÂ Resultsâ with 56% of participantsÂ clicking intoÂ this area.Â While the âalternativeÂ search sitesâ caught less visual attentionÂ andÂ only clicked once, indicating little interest from users.
Similarly, examination of the âflight searchâ results page revealed that most users clicked on the GoogleÂ Flight Search âSponsored linksâ area (43%), with âalternativeÂ search sitesâ receiving little visualÂ attentionÂ andÂ correspondingly, onlyÂ four clicksÂ (11%)Â indicating that the Google Flight Search area isÂ theÂ mostÂ attractiveÂ on the search results page.
During a search for âMap Londonâ, the Google Maps area and Google Images thumbnails receive more, earlier, and longer visual attention than all other page elements, including competing mapping providers, with 46% of participantsÂ clicking on the Google map and a further 36%Â clicking âGoogle Imagesâ, which is itself another Google service. Comparatively, the 1st organic link on the results page, âmylondonmap.comâ, received only two clicks and theÂ official âTransport for Londonâ , received no clicks.
ICOMP Legal Counsel, David Wood said: âThese results give a clear signalÂ ofÂ whatÂ we can expectÂ fromÂ GoogleâsÂ rival links proposal â an ineffective remedy and the potential for increased abusive behaviour by Google. Acceptance of these proposals by the Commission will serve to further and irrevocably entrench Googleâs dominance. What is more, these new proposals give Google the power to further monetise its abusive behaviour by forcing small and large competitors to pay Google for the right to feature in these ârival linksâ listings. The most relevant search results will be replaced by preferential slots either reserved for Google itself, or sold to the highest bidder. As ICOMP we maintain that the only workable solution to restore effective online competition and to give consumers what they are expecting is for all services to be given equal treatment in terms of search rankings placement. ICOMP urges the Commission to take note of these findingsâ
ICOMP Member and Managing Director of Hotmap.com, Michael Weber said: âThe search results page layouts proposed to the Commission safeguard Googleâs own paid product listings and other Google services such as Google Maps, giving Google the lion’s share of all views and clicks, and the proposed rival links next to none. In particular, this manipulation of search leaves mapping competitors with little traffic, in no way restores competition and is detrimental to the online economy.â
The value of eye tracking as a methodology is confirmed by Googleâs own research methods. In its Official Blog of 6 February 2009, Google wrote âwe use eye-tracking equipment in our usability labs. This lets us see how our study participants scan the search results page, and is the next best thing to actually being able to read their mindsâ The blog post confesses that âmost users found what they were looking for among the first two results and they never needed to go further down the pageâ, demonstrating the companyâs awareness of the power behind search results page positioning.
The ICOMP commissioned study was conducted by tracking the behaviour of 35 users when sat in front of a 46-inchÂ Â plasma screenÂ monitor, measuringÂ eyeÂ movementsÂ on searchÂ engine result pages given as examples in the OctoberÂ 21,Â 2013Â commitment Â proposalÂ Â by Google, as well as an additionalÂ search results page depictingÂ a mapping search. The study was conducted within time constraints, to allow for submission within the European Commissionâs request for information deadline.
For further information, please contact the ICOMP Secretariat on Mary-Jane.Attafuah@bm.com or 0207 300 6205.