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Google search ranking

Regina Mennig / csc April 18, 2013

After complaints to the EU Commission, Google says it plans to display more links to services offered by its competitors. But how exactly the firm ranks search results remains a mystery to most.

Exhibitors of the Google company work on laptop computers in front of an illuminated sign of the Google logo (ddp images/AP Photo/Jens Meyer, file)
Image: dapd

For more than a decade, people have been using "google" as a synonym to looking something up on the Web.

You'll seldom hear people say they're about to "bing" something, or that "you should yahoo that."

But you do hear of people "googling" things all the time.

It just goes to show how dominant the Google is. Other search engines like Microsoft's Bing trail far behind.

Across Europe, the numbers speak for themselves: around 90 percent of all searches in EU countries are done on Google. By contrast, Bing fails to even achieve in Europe the meager ten percent market share it holds in the US.

But all is not necessarily fair in business - and Google's competitors accuse it of exploiting its market dominance by favoring its own products or services, such as Google Maps or YouTube, when it displays search results.

A number of them, including Microsoft and smaller services from the travel industry and apps market, submitted a complaint to the EU's antitrust authorities in 2010.

To avoid an antitrust action, Google appears to be saying it is willing to make some concessions.

It's all a big secret

"Google submitted a range of proposals, but they have not been made public," said Antoine Colombani, the EU competition commissioner's spokesperson.

EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia und spokesperson Antoine Colombani (left). Photo: Regina Mennig/DW
EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia (right) and spokesperson Antoine Colombani (left)Image: EU Kommission

The only thing that has been known for long is that Google says it will display more links from services provided by its competition.

Also, the Internet giant proposes to ensure its services are clearly indicated in search results.

If Google's proposal goes through, people in EU countries could start getting different results from Internet users in the rest of the world - that is, more content from Google's competitors.

But Google has declined to reveal what exactly will be changed.

And even experts like Jo Bager from German computer magazine "c't" can only point to a combination of approximately 200 criteria, which determine the search results on Google.

"The most important factor is whether a website is linked to by a lot of other websites - if it is, it's highly ranked," Bager explains.

Google analyzes webpages to calculate how often the search words which you use appear on a given page, and how many visitors the page has had.

"Of course, there is a lot of speculation over what exactly that entails but in the end that is a company secret," adds Bager.

An image of an app on a smartphone. (Photo: Robin Powell/DW)
Google services like Maps are considered the standard - even on taxi apps like HailoImage: Robin Powell

A little more is known about Google's Web database.

The search engine uses crawlers - "bots" that systematically browse the Web to index its content. Crawlers or bots scour the Net, sending words and images of webpages to central servers.

In this case, the servers are held by Google.

What this means is that when you search for something using Google, you are not really searching the Internet - instead you are searching Google's central server, the data in which has been curated by the search engine's crawlers.

A big fine

Even the European Commission is unable to see what takes place behind closed doors at Google.

But the commission could get tough if the company makes false promises.

An antitrust action would have dire consequences: Google competitor Microsoft was recently slapped with a record fine of 561 million euros ($731 million).

The European Commission found that Microsoft had failed to offer Windows 7 users a choice of Internet browsers - as it had promised in a five-year accord reached between the two sides in 2009.

Colombani says Google will now have to prove it has made changes in a market test in the coming weeks.