Google once more might have crossed the fine line between delivering the most neutral search results, and doing self-promotion in disfavor of such neutrality.
The shopping information in question is shown on top of some web results when you search for products like sd cards 128mb, and in itself, it’s delivering just another neutral result with more links to neutral Froogle, which is nothing to worry about.* The worrying part however may be the link with the catchy shopping cart icon reading “See sd cards 128mb results available through Google Checkout”… because it will restrict the originally 11,000+ Froogle results for the SD card to the much smaller scope of 281 from vendors which support Google’s Checkout service, a payment system which can earn Google a commission on sales.**
But does this Checkout link show to the detriment of the searcher, as Danny argues? After all, Google does deliver a non-Checkout search link on top, and more importantly, Google may argue that a Checkout-specific search brings the bonus that users can now pay using their Google Account credentials, sparing them the hassle of having to trust & login to another payment process. And then we’ll have to ask the question: what if the user prefers something like PayPal to Checkout… and how can PayPal-owner eBay “compete” in this Google onebox with a PayPal-optimized link and icon? Because if the onebox is part of the search result, and the search result is neutral, it must be possible for others to equally compete in this neutral space… just as eBay is also able to compete within Google’s organic search results. If it’s a neutral space, then why should Google, not PayPal, be the slightly preferred way for users to get their hassle-free payment done?
It’s interesting to note that likely, none of us would have any of these discussions if Google didn’t strongly emphasize the neutrality of their search results in the past.*** Indeed, competitors like Yahoo are doing this stuff (and worse) all the time. But as Mike Arrington of TechCrunch once put it, “Google will forever be held to a higher standard than everyone else, simply because they asked us to.”
*The usual caveats apply for the word “neutral.”
**Note that Google actually gives this service away for free in 2007 to further promote it, so Google commissions are temporarily disabled. Also note that I don’t see this checkout link for the same search on German Google.
***As quoted before in the discussion on Google’s now-removed “tips” feature, Google claims they are “not using an editorial viewpoint” in search results, adding elsewhere “nor do we manipulate search results by hand”, arguing they “believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites”, and explaining that “Google’s complex, automated methods make human tampering with our results extremely difficult.”