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Yahoo!, AOL, OneSearch biased in favor of parent company’s websites

Verizon Media, formerly Oath, owns the two search engines Yahoo! and AOL. , it also launched another search engine called OneSearch. OneSearch promises to provide “unfiltered” and “unbiased” search results on its front page.

Verizon Media’s search engines are powered by Microsoft Bing. Bing does the crawling, indexing, and ranking of the web and resells its search results to meta-search-engines like the three owned by Verizon Media. Other meta-search-engines like DuckDuckGo and Ecosia also operate this way.

There’s a huge conflict of interest in a media company that owns several high-profile websites — including Engadget, HuffPost, and TechCrunch — owning several search engines.

You may not be surprised to learn that the search results from all three of Verizon Media’s search engines are biased in favor of Verizon Media websites. Yahoo!, AOL, and OneSearch all boosts the ranking of Verizon Media brands in organic search results. That is to say, regular web results excluding ads, news, shopping, image, and video search results.

The experiment needed search results that would return results from Verizon Media websites. I measured the first position in the organic search result of any Verizon Media website. This should measure any bias favoring it in the search results.

I selected twelve search queries based on summarized current news headlines from Verizon Media websites including Engadget, HuffPost, and TechCrunch. I took care to avoid using the exact keywords and phrasing found in the headlines. I also verified that at least ten other high-profile websites had written stories on the same subject with similar headlines.

I also repeated the same search queries with three other search engines: Bing, FindX, and Lilo acting as a control group. All six search engines are powered by Bing and should produce similar — if not identical — search results.

The search results were unsurprisingly very similar across all six search engines. There were some minor ranking differences within the results of all the search engines. E.g. some results would be listed one position higher or lower in one search engine compared to the others. One search query produced very different results between search engines as it automatically bypassed the mature-content filter that is normally applied.

The thing that stood out in the result was the consistently increased position of Verizon Media-owned websites in the search results of Verizon Media-owned search engines.

Boxplot showing that Verizon Media-websites get much higher ranking positions in Verizon Media-owned search engines compared to other search engines.

Verizon Media-properties had a median search result position of 1 and an average position of 2,8 in Verizon Media-owned search engines. In the above boxplot, you can see that Verizon Media-websites are clustered at the top position in search results in their own search engines.

The three Bing-powered control search engines rank Verizon Media-properties consistently lower with a median position of 4 and an average of 9,4. For contrast, I’ve also included the results from StartPage which gets its search results from Google.

You can download a copy of the results spreadsheet if you’re interested in the details.

I did not measure the position of Verizon Media-brands in news search results. News results are often placed before or in-between organic search results. However, the inclusion and presentation of news search results are less predictable than organic search results. The same search query repeated multiple times produced results with and without news search results, making them more difficult to measure.

The market leader in search, Google, is frequently criticized for prioritizing its products in the company’s search results. However, these tests suggest they’re not alone in favoring their own products.

Search engines, like any software product, reflect the opinions, preferences, and the business-interests of the people who built it.

Yahoo!, AOL, and OneSearch can’t be considered to be neutral search engines. They have a business agenda that influences how they rank search results. This arguably isn’t an anti-trust issue as Verizon Media isn’t a market leader in the search market. However, it’s anti-competitive behavior none the less.

Verizon Media-owned search engines have decreased from a market share of 4,10 % in to 3,63 % in the United States in , according to StatCounter Global Stats. 3,63 % of the internet-connected population of the US is roughly 10,6 million people.

I’m pro-competition in the search market. I’m all in favor of more diverse search results. However, bias favoring one company over others is not what anyone is looking for in a search engine.

Verizon Media did not reply to my request for comment (within 8 hours). I’ll update the article if they get back to me.