Eye tracking study confirms that Google benefits most from its proposed ‘rival links’ solution to EU abuse concerns

December 12, 2013


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An eye tracking study, commissioned by ICOMP (Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace) has revealed that Google’s proposed commitments relating to the display of rival links, continue to weigh heavily in favour of Google’s 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 – rather than those which are the ‘best result’ 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, Google’s 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 Research (IKM) at the German Sports University Cologne (DSHS), examines where people look on the page of search results, how long they look at individual links and where they ‘click’ as a result. The search results pages used in the study were taken directly from Google’s proposals in its second round of commitments.

Key findings of the study are:

1.       Google’s ‘Sponsored’ results consistently attract the largest  amount  of  the users’ total  visual attention

2.       ‘Alternative  search sites’ do not draw enough visual attention to prompt the users to click on them

3.       Visual attention for organic links is negligible compared to the ‘image enhanced’ Google elements placed above them

For example; results for the search term ‘iPod’ reveal that thumbnail product pictures guide the visual attention of users to ‘Google  Shopping  Results’ with 56% of participants clicking into this area. While the ‘alternative search sites’ caught less visual attention and only clicked once, indicating little interest from users.

Similarly, examination of the ‘flight search’ results page revealed that most users clicked on the Google Flight Search ‘Sponsored links’ area (43%), with ‘alternative  search sites’ receiving little visual  attention  and  correspondingly, only  four clicks  (11%) indicating that the Google Flight Search area is the  most attractive on the search results page.

During a search for ‘Map London’, 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 participants clicking on the Google map and a further 36%  clicking ‘Google Images’, which is itself another Google service. Comparatively, the 1st organic link on the results page, ‘mylondonmap.com’, received only two clicks and the official ‘Transport for London’ , received no clicks.

ICOMP Legal Counsel, David Wood said: “These results give a clear signal  of  what  we can expect  from  Google’s  rival links proposal – 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 Google’s 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 ‘rival links’ 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 findings”

ICOMP Member and Managing Director of Hotmap.com, Michael Weber said: “The search results page layouts proposed to the Commission safeguard Google’s 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.”

The value of eye tracking as a methodology is confirmed by Google’s own research methods. In its Official Blog of 6 February 2009, Google wrote “we 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 minds” The blog post confesses that “most users found what they were looking for among the first two results and they never needed to go further down the page”, demonstrating the company’s 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-inch  plasma screen  monitor, measuring  eye  movements  on search  engine result pages given as examples in the October 21, 2013 commitment  proposal  by Google, as well as an additional search results page depicting a mapping search. The study was conducted within time constraints, to allow for submission within the European Commission’s request for information deadline.

For further information, please contact the ICOMP Secretariat on Mary-Jane.Attafuah@bm.com or 0207 300 6205.