Or are they?
Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an article pointing out how Google is increasingly favoring its own properties, in search results over natural results to outside sites which previously commanded the top spots. This practice is especially noticeable with Google Places and local results, but there are other examples as well from product and mortgage search to health search.
Displaying local results this way is a little less in your face, but the end result is the same. In both cases, the main link still goes to the businesses’ own websites, but the Google Places links are also prominent. Either way, the message is clear to local businesses: list your profile in Google Places and you will have a better shot at appearing at the top of the first search results page.
Are these results better for users? It depends on how good are the Google Places listings. Some of them are very good, I will admit. But try any local search and I bet you will consistently get Google Places results, sometimes taking up most of page—not always at the very top, but always as a block. They can’t all be better than results for businesses which don’t happen to have a Google Places listing. Remember, Google Places is still fairly new and developing. Google is clearly using its main search page to push Google Places and make those listings more prominent. Over time, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy and those listings will be the best because businesses will learn that is the most important place to be in order to be found by Google.