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How Amazon and Google are collaborating to ruin search results

(TECHNOLOGY) Google remains the primary search tool in the market, and they’re complicit in allowing Amazon to dominate the search results.

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If you’ve tried looking up products in which you’re interested lately, you’ve probably noticed that the majority of the top search results come from Amazon. While this isn’t terribly surprising given Amazon’s status as the largest online retailer in the United States, Monji Dolon has come to a startling realization regarding the phenomenon – and it’s something to which everyone should start paying attention.

Dolon, CEO and cofounder of Measured (a “consumer health startup”) posits that Amazon has had a profound (and negative) effect on the process of researching products. What’s worse is that Google, once a shining paradigm of search excellence, seems to be in on the joke.

In his experience of searching for bicycles under $500, Dolon ran into a seemingly innocuous article comparing ten different bikes. These kinds of articles (usually framed as “Top Ten [Product] Under [Price]”) are ubiquitous in consumer search results, and they offer what appears to be a variety of options. Knowing this, Dolon selected the article for further reading.

At this point, Dolon observed two key problems.

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Firstly, the website on which the bicycle comparison appeared was an architecture publication. “Why, pray tell, are they reviewing bicycles? Your guess is as good as mine,” Dolon says, expressing the kind of incredulity that should accompany this kind of dissonance.

But secondly, and more to the point, Dolon noticed that the bikes listed in the article were all linked to Amazon’s inventory using affiliate links, meaning that the website receives a small commission each time a consumer uses one of the links to complete a purchase.

“[The use of affiliate links] goes quite well with the dozen or so ads plastered across the site (some of which are autoplaying videos with sound),” says Dolon.

As far as unbiased, complete research goes, the bicycle article itself fails on all fronts – and it isn’t the only one. Dolon reports that “of the results shown on the first page for ‘best bicycles under $500,’ I found that 8 out of 10 websites only list products found on Amazon using affiliate links.”

“Amazon has a limited selection of bikes in their catalog and many of the more reputable brands are completely left out of these review sites,” he adds. With Google bringing up such a myopic list of results for what should be a widely varying search query, Dolon’s premise – that Amazon and Google are collaborating to ruin the free research process – seems fair.

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It isn’t fair to hold Google as accountable as Amazon, though. As culpable as the Alphabet search engine may be, Dolon notes that Amazon is still present in other search engine results for the same request – if not quite as egregiously so.

“[I]f you’re curious how DuckDuckGo compares, the results were (arguably) slightly better,” he reports. “While the first result is still an Amazon affiliate review site, I did see some of the other, bigger brands mentioned on other results.”

Amazon is clearly a convenient service, one which heavily influences product results simply by virtue of ease of use – and that’s a bigger problem than Google can be held responsible for.

For example, my recent search for highly rated woks yielded a New York Magazine comparison article on which the vast majority of recommended products are – you guessed it – available on Amazon. While the article in question offers actionable advice and does not appear to incorporate affiliate links, it still serves the purpose of largely confining one’s possible purchases to Amazon without considering much in the way of alternative solutions.

In academia, the key principle in any effective research is variety. If one is unable to retrieve comparable information from different sources, the credibility of one’s research suffers.

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Unfortunately, this principle also extends to consumer research – and with Google and Amazon doing their respective best to become monopolies in their fields, any collaboration between the two is worrisome, not to mention counterproductive to organic, rich, varied research results.

As we continue to compare and contrast the products we consume, it may be time to ditch the first couple of pages of search results in favor of finding less-biased, less-Amazon-prone products. The alternative, Dolon fears, is an environment in which consumers oscillate between Google and Amazon with no true variety elsewhere.

Google once put great efforts into punishing site scraping and rewards originators of content, and millions of other algorithm updates have proven their ability to evolve – their search product could easily devalue “articles” featuring numerous Amazon affiliate links. But they won’t.

“Google, like many of the other tech giants, benefits from an uninformed user base,” he warns.

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Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

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