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HBS Professor Slams Google’s Methods

Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Benjamin G. Edelman ’02, who this month published a study accusing Google of bias, says that the company is attempting to discredit him for his work.

Edelman’s study, which he co-wrote with HBS doctoral student Benjamin B. Lockwood, found that search engines like Google and Yahoo unduly favor their own services for popular search terms such as e-mail, calendar and maps.

“The key question is whether Google’s results are skewed towards Google’s services,” Edelman said.

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In the study, entitled “Measuring Bias in ‘Organic’ Web Search,” Edelman cites Google’s prominence and its assertion that its algorithmic results are never manipulated as a reason for focusing on the company so heavily.

In response to the accusation, Google issued a statement claiming that Edelman’s research is biased because of his past professional relationship with competitor Microsoft.

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“Mr. Edelman is a longtime paid consultant for Microsoft, so it’s no surprise that he would construct a highly biased test that his sponsor would pass and that Google would fail,” it said.

In an interview, Google representative Adam Kovacevich '99 added that “[Edelman] writes reports criticizing Google nearly every other month.”

When asked what implications he thinks his research might have, Edelman said that anti-trust regulators in Europe are already starting to examine Google’s practices.

“In the coming months and years we will see whether litigation prevents Google from giving its own services a boost,” he said.

“The basic question is whether Google can favor its own services whenever, and however much, it cares to do so,” he added.

Edelman said that he plans to continue researching the practices of Google and other search engines, with his next focus potentially being privacy.

“There are certainly serious questions about privacy. What data is stored by a search engine, for how long, and who has access to it?”

Google’s representatives said that they do not intend to take legal action against Edelman but that they want to stress their company’s commitment to objective search results.

They say preferences of Google users determines the order of search results.

Despite Google’s accusations, Edelman stands by the results of his study.

“The methodology is appropriate, and the conclusions are right,” he said.

—Staff writer Matthew M. Beck can be reached at mbeck@college.harvard.edu.

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