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When choosing the best video clips to promote from around the web, Alphabet Inc.’s Google gives a secret advantage to one source in particular: itself.
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Or, more specifically, its giant online-video service, YouTube.
Take a clip of basketball star Zion Williamson that the National Basketball Association posted online in January, when he made his highly anticipated pro debut. The clip was popular on Facebook Inc., drawing more than one million views and nearly 900 comments as of March. A nearly identical YouTube version of the clip with the same title was seen about 182,000 times and garnered fewer than 400 comments.
But when The Wall Street Journal’s automated bots searched Google for the clip’s title, the YouTube version featured much more prominently than the Facebook version.
The Journal conducted Google searches for a selection of other videos and channels that are available on YouTube as well as on competitors’ platforms. The YouTube versions were significantly more prominent in the results in the vast majority of cases.
This isn’t by accident.
Engineers at Google have made changes that effectively preference YouTube over other video sources, according to people familiar with the matter. Google executives in recent years made decisions to prioritize YouTube on the first page of search results, in part to drive traffic to YouTube rather than to competitors, and also to give YouTube more leverage in business deals with content providers seeking traffic for their videos, one of those people said.
“All else being equal, YouTube will be first,” the person said.
A Google spokeswoman, Lara Levin, said there is no preference given to YouTube or any other video provider in Google search. “Our systems use a number of signals from the web to understand what results people find most relevant and helpful for a given query,” Ms. Levin said. She declined to comment on the specific examples cited in this article.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on the results. An NBA spokesman declined to comment.
Google’s competitive practices are already under heavy scrutiny amid allegations it uses its dominance in search to suppress competition in other markets. An antitrust lawsuit from the Justice Department is likely as early as this summer, the Journal has reported. Executives from Google and other tech companies are set to testify before Congress July 27 as part of an investigation into their power over the digital marketplace.
A Journal investigation last year showed that Google engineers make regular algorithmic changes in order to achieve specific business aims, contrary to the company’s public statements that its search results are purely objective and autonomous.
Ms. Levin said the search giant is transparent about making thousands of changes each year.
In January, Google disclosed for the first time that YouTube had grown into a business with $15 billion in annual advertising revenue—making it larger than many established media giants. In the first quarter, its revenue grew 33% to more than $4 billion.
Despite its heft, YouTube faces competitive challenges from other tech and media firms that host videos.
Facebook has invested heavily in attracting content—from recipes to pop culture and sports clips—to its Facebook Watch service, a video-distribution channel. Amazon.com Inc.’s Twitch, purchased in 2014, has attracted a large audience for its videos and live streams of professional videogamers.
Vivendi SA’s online-video hosting and sharing site Dailymotion was one of the original competitors to YouTube but has long lagged far behind in usage.
Other online-video competitors include Instagram, Twitter Inc. and ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok.
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The Journal compared how popular videos and gamers on Facebook Watch, Twitch and Dailymotion fared compared with YouTube in Google searches.
The tests found that video results in a large majority of cases featured YouTube videos ahead of the same or very similar versions of the videos available on competitor sites, even when the actual views and followers were higher on the competitor sites.
The tests, most of which took place in March, focused on video results in prominent boxes marked “Videos” on the first page of search results on desktop and laptop computers. In those results, three videos are visible at a time, with the user being able to click through a carousel of lower-ranked results.
Google also gave YouTube a greater proportion of the total number of videos in the carousel, which includes up to 10 results, than it did to competitors, the tests showed.
That prioritization appears to contradict the company’s public posture on how it indexes and ranks videos in its search results. The company has told website owners that the video carousel is an “organic search element,” a term that means Google shows users what its algorithms judge to be the most-relevant results. The company publishes detailed instructions for websites to make sure their videos can appear in the boxes.
Ms. Levin, the Google spokeswoman, said that the number of video views and user comments aren’t factors in its search rankings.