The short answer is.... It certainly seems so! There was a great post today from Sherwood Stranieri of SearchEngineLand titled, "Is Google Universal Search A Walled Garden?." The nice thing about this article is that the author takes a fairly objective approach, giving Google the benefit of the doubt to begin with. However, research offered in the post does seem to demonstrate that Google may be preferentially treating Youtube videos within universal search results.
Previously we've covered some research that was done by Comscore which shows that among all universal search results, video results tend to dominate, along with results for news content. We also know that Google, as well as the other major search engines, are still experimenting with different user interfaces for Universal search. So, while the research seems to indicate that Google currently shows preference for Youtube videos; we know that changes are still being made. Therefore, what we see today, will likely change in the future.
Sherwood covers a few explanations that have been offered in rebuttal to the notion that Google is promoting its own results above others:
- We know that Youtube dominates in terms of the amount of videos archived as well as the amount of users that flock to the world's most popular video destination. Therefore, it must be that the reason we see Youtube videos more often, is that they merely have more videos....
- If Google properties are performing well within search results, it must be a result of the fact that Google developers are best poised to understand and develop sites that are more easily indexed by Google's algorithm.
To prove the point, Sherwood did a competitive SEO analysis and study of Google search results for the top 50 celebrity actresses (names appended with - "video" for each query). In the results, Sherwood found that there were only 9 video sites where video results were represented within the first 30 results:
As for the findings, the following chart shows 2 things. First, the taller bars indicate how many of the 50 different search queries returned videos from each destination. Second, the numbers at the top of each bar show us the average ranking of each destination's video results.
Sherwood points out that although Youtube videos were shown more often than other sites, the variations we see in these results do not necessarily prove that Google is preferentially indexing more videos from Youtube than other sites. However, what the findings do show, is that clearly both Youtube and Google videos enjoy much higher average rankings than other destinations.
Sherwood offers the following conclusion:
"The very high average ranking for YouTube definitely raise an eyebrow. It's pretty clear that even if Google's algorithm is being objective, it's been trained to respond to the characteristics that YouTube has in spades. It's debatable whether this is a "bias" or just good design..."
The research does not really speak directly to the occurrence of video thumbnails within the universal search results but I assume that since the research was specifically examining Universal Search; the results shown in the graph probably represent only results which had a video thumbnail. I have asked the author and will let you know if that is not the case.
I think it is fair to say that Youtube videos, for the most part have thumbnails displayed next to their results more often than any other video portal. There are a number of sites that have been successful in getting thumbnails to display in the SERPS, but Youtube videos do tend to dominate here as well. So, while the post did not specifically address that aspect, I do think it is an important aspect to study and consider. Clearly a thumbnail result draws the user's eye to view the Youtube video results, regardless of whether they are ranked first, third, or fifth. Last year, SearchEngineLand covered some eye-tracking studies which confirm that users are drawn to thumbnails.
Note - This isn't the only time that we have seen Google treat its own results above others with greater ranking. The most obvious and recent example is regarding Google's new knol product. Aaron Wall of SEOBook wrote a great post with some research to back this up. As a side note, I think it really demonstrates the contradition with Google's stated philosophy - "...Google has steadfastly refused to make any change that does not offer a benefit to the users who come to the site..." Read Aaron's article and I think you will also see why many, including myself, are begining to doubt that.