Leaked Yelp Documents Accuse Google Of Manipulating Search Results

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

yelp-395Google hasn’t been catching a break in Europe courts as of late, and Yelp is actively campaigning to make it worse. Besides pushing for a tougher punishment in an antitrust settlement against Google in Europe, Yelp also believes that Google is hurting their business through the way search results are listed. These accusations haven’t been made public and much of what is known comes from leaked documents and anonymous sources. This article will review the basis of Yelp’s claims against Google and how they fit into the larger issue of Google and European regulations.

Because the allegations being asserted in these documents are nuanced, it’s good to make a few things clear. When someone searches for the name of a business along with the word Yelp, the first listing on Google’s search page is the link for the business’s website. The second link would be for the business’s Yelp page. On the first listing, for the business’s website, if the company has a Google+ page, map location, or Google Reviews, these will be included under the website’s URL. The leaked documents assert that this arrangement is hurting Yelp.

It’s unclear if Yelp is saying that the problem is the fact that the company website appears before the Yelp page or if the links to Google services distract viewers from their original intent to read Yelp reviews. The former seems unlikely since it’s clearly reasonable to give the business’s website top billing over ancillary content from Yelp. If people type the name of a business into a search engine, there’s a high probability they want or need to visit the website. The latter explanation, that Google shouldn’t show links to their services, has a little more merit, but this practice has already been upheld by U.S. courts.

Regardless of the mechanism, the leaked Yelp documents claim that Google is siphoning off up to 20 percent of their traffic through this search results configuration. In a user study funded by Yelp, when participants were given search results where Yelp was listed second to the website, 80 percent of the clicks went to Yelp and the rest went to what the study described as “The Google+ Local Space”. It’s important to note that the study itself had several glaring flaws. First, the study only featured  209 clicks. This is an extremely small sample size and it’s unlikely that any practical data can be gleaned by the 42 clicks that weren’t for Yelp. Additionally, while the survey says “Google+ Local Spot” the spot was for the company’s website. And, as was noted by SearchEngineLand, these clicks were mostly on the website URL and occasionally the link to write a Google+ review. So it’s a little disingenuous to say that Google+ is siphoning off traffic when it’s really just people choosing to go to the business’s website over Yelp.

Another point of contention by Yelp is the different way that Google searches look in US markets compared to their search result in Europe. For example, in some cases, a Google search for a business will result in a drop down carousel with Google Reviews as little slides. This featured can be seen on some searches in America but never in Europe. According to inside sources quoted by TechCrunch, Yelp believes that Google is downplaying it’s activities in Europe as it tries to finalize a favorable settlement to an antitrust lawsuit.

“My source says Yelp believes this is because Google wants to downplay in front of the EU regulators how it manipulates results until a lenient settlement passes,” wrote Josh Constine in an article on TechCrunch. The source says that in some cases, even searching on Google.com from a European IP address will illustrate less aggressive marketing of Google’s own services like Google+, suggesting Google is actively trying to hide these result formats from people in Europe.”

Yelp has been actively trying to push the outgoing E.U. regulator to pursue a harsher punishment for Google. In the tentative agreement, Google won’t have to admit wrongdoing, thus avoiding billions of dollars in potential fines and it takes certain regulatory options off the table that Yelp and others want to curtail Google’s market share.

Back in May, Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman went over the regulators’ head and wrote a letter to José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Mr. Almunia’s boss

“I truly fear the landscape for innovation in Europe is infertile, and this is a direct result of the abuses Google has undertaken with its dominant position,” Mr. Stoppelman wrote in the letter, according to sources from the New York Times who provided a copy of the letter under conditions of anonymity.

Yelp’s dogged pursuit of Google is ironic because Yelp is often the subject of unfair business practice allegations. Yelp is often accused of manipulating review results in an attempt to extort money from small business owners. Yelp has consistently denied this, but regardless, US courts have ruled that even if they were, the practice would be covered under a law intended to shield social media firms. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Federal Trade Commission disclosed that there were thousands of complaints against Yelp for a variety of their business practices.

Since all of this information is based on leaked sources, neither Google or Yelp have made official statements. But with so much data, leaked or not, floating around, it’s only a matter of time before one of the company makes a public comment about these claims.


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