Google is still the front door to the internet, which is why advertisers spend billions of dollars bidding on search terms to win the top spot.
But if they're bidding against Google itself, that’s a conflict of interest. Google has a pretty clear incentive to bump up ads for its own products — despite its competitors bids for the same space — to the top of the search page.
According to a data analysis in the Wall Street Journal, the search giant has been buying millions of its own ads and displaying its products such as Google Home and Nest thermostats atop search results, over those of ad-buying customers.
Analysis of 25,000 searches of selected terms found that 91 percent of the time, Google and Alphabet products took the top spot. Here are some specifics:
- Searches for “phones” almost always led with ads for Google Pixel.
- Searches for “laptops” all started with ads for the Chromebook.
- Ninety-eight percent of searches for “watches” were topped with Android smartwatch ads.
It’s a convincing analysis, but then the Journal also goes on to point out that Google takes measures to prevent its use of its own ad space from driving up costs for customers:
Google said that when it competes for ads, other advertisers are charged as if it wasn’t bidding, meaning its participation doesn’t directly inflate prices ...
Google said that its ads only appear atop results because of the ad’s quality and the price Google is willing to pay. Google said its house ads are also subject to marketing budgets.
“We have consciously and carefully designed our marketing programs to not impact the ad auction. All our bids are excluded from the auction when determining the price paid by other advertisers, and we have strict rules and processes — set to tougher levels than our customers — to govern the use of our own ads products,” Google said in response to the Journal story.
A 2010 blog post on Google’s AdWords blog said it “probably comes as no surprise that we are huge fans of AdWords,” adding that “house ads are a common industry practice.”
You have to take Google at their word on self-imposed restrictions. And while taking out house ads is a common practice generally — newspapers and TV stations do it, too — when you’re the gateway to the internet, that practice can come at a cost for customers in a different way.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.