Fire in the House of Google: Does Google Hard Wire YouTube Search Results?

“Hold tight, we’re in for nasty weather…”

“Burning Down the House”
By David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Christopher Frantz and Tina Weymouth

Largely due to YouTube’s dominance, artists and entrepreneurs with legitimate online music video platforms have it tough competing with YouTube.  When Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights this week (9/21 2pm ET), we may find out why.

About five years ago a strange trend surfaced: Google searches by title or by artist for a Billboard Hot 100 single returned search results that looked extremely consistent—YouTube was the only video source listed in the all-important first page of search results. The YouTube links were so consistent they appeared to be “hard wired”—meaning not a natural result of an automatic algorithm, but suggesting  human intervention and rigging.

Even rabid Google supporters believed that Google gave artists and music fans fair and unbiased search results as Google claims to do.  (Setting aside the legality of how the videos got on YouTube to begin with.)  So persuasive proof of rigging would be required to win them over, but that proof is impossible to get unless you have access to the algorithm—the most closely guarded of all Google’s secrets.  Or you have a Google executive testifying under oath in a public forum that Google cannot cause to be subject to a protective order.

Over the years, this hard wiring perception has become more pronounced.  Today, the order of Google search results for music videos is so repeatable that it is widely assumed to be rigged in my world.

If you search Google for a hit song by title, YouTube videos with the “thumbnail” of the video image will be returned in the first few search results appearing “above the fold” (meaning within the browser screen that you see without scrolling).

If you search for the artist by name, the top search result is usually the artist’s official site, followed almost immediately by a similar pattern of YouTube videos—even if the artist themselves have a video on the very artist site that was returned at the top of the search results.

Until recently, only the most cynical believed that this “hard wiring” of search results was actually happening.

Then a YouTube video began circulating of a speech by Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Geographic and Local Services, Google, Inc.  The speech was made to a large audience at the Google Seattle Conference on Scalability (June 23, 2007).  Vice President Mayer said: “[When] we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair right?  We do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first… That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it’s the first link.

After hearing that statement, even the biggest Google fans in the music video professional community began to believe that Google rigged the order of YouTube videos in Google search.

The same artist names and song titles in other search engines bring different results.  So this phenomenon of the uniformity of YouTube search results is limited to Google search and its heavily subsidized subsidiary. (“Google CEO: YouTube Still Isn’t Profitable”, Wall Street Journal ,
Sept. 9, 2010.)

As The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Kafka put it four years after Google’s 2006 acquisition of YouTube, “[D]oes anyone want to guess when, if ever, Google will tell us that YouTube is actually profitable?” Or said another way, when, if ever, Google will stop subsidizing YouTube with profits from its dominance in search?

Those with competing businesses in the online music video marketplace resigned themselves to being “disappeared” by Google to favor its own businesses, which is only compounded by Google’s Android phone.

These issues deserve an answer under oath before the Senate Subcommittee.   It is an important Sherman Act question if Google used its profits from its dominance in search to subsidize its dominance over online video through YouTube (which it clearly seems to be doing by Chairman Schmidt’s own reported admission). Google should honestly answer that question.

Google should honestly answer why it paid a billion dollar premium for YouTube—was Google’s plan to use YouTube to achieve market dominance over video search?  Not to mention Google’s willingness to subsidize YouTube’s losses for five years—a loss that must be spectacular in its energy and bandwidth use alone (“Keyword: Evil” details the backroom deal for a gigantic Google data center in Senator Wyden’s home state where Google got special terms–if you catch my drift–for power on Oregon’s Columbia River).  Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban recently called the YouTube acquisition “crazy”—was the deal illegal because it was crazy or crazy because it was illegal?  Chairman Schmidt should know the answer, he championed the YouTube acquisition to his board of directors.

Google should honestly answer if it required exclusive agreements with the companies it allows to be linked to its search results for YouTube as the price of admission for those links in order to create or extend Google’s monopoly over search?  Do these agreements result in undisclosed paid search results?

And Google should honestly answer whether Google’s ownership of both the YouTube service and the means to find YouTube resulted in “hard wired” rigging of search results in a biased way.

After seeing Vice President Meyer’s public statement of Google’s policy of putting links to Google Finance and Google Maps first in search results, it is not surprising to observe the consistent dominance of YouTube links in Google search, which could raise legitimate concerns under the Federal Trade Commission Act as well as the Sherman Act.

Both the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act are in the jurisdiction of the Senate Subcommittee.  Senators—and the music fans and artists they represent–deserve candid answers to these important questions that they are unlikely to get another way.

PS:  Google will likely try to argue that it is not “dominant” in an antitrust sense.  Aside from being counterintuitive to anyone who uses the Internet, the Department of Justice found that  “[t]he Department’s investigation revealed that [1] Internet search advertising and [2] Internet search syndication are each relevant antitrust markets [in the US] and that Google is by far the largest provider of such services, with share of more than 70 percent in both markets.”  So while Comscore found recently that Google’s share of search was around 65% (which ain’t exactly small) the Comscore number leaves out a bunch of stuff that probably should be counted.

Comscore is a measurement of apples to apples so it has to break out particular relevant data for comparison.  It’s coM score as in comparison, not coN score as in…well, cons.  It’s also not GRIFT score either, as in grifter.

So when you add in syndicated search, mobile devices (including tablets), Mac and Android platforms…well you get the idea.

Dominant at best.

And then of course there’s the Google Books debacle, where Judge Chin could not have been more clear with Google–you lose.  Too much market power in general.

Or as my political theory professor said when giving advice for the final exam, “Don’t tell me Plato was a Greek philosopher.”

“No shit.”