Is Google Dinging Music Search Results With Promo Songs?

mos defBeginning tonight, Google’s (s goog) new enhanced music search results will feature promotional songs from record labels, opening the door for Google to treat music search as a paid-content opportunity rather than just the shortest path to a song. Partner site revealed last week that it would feature exclusive content in search results, and is set to announce tonight that about 20 artists will offer exclusive promotional songs on Lala with featured placement in Google search results. Artists involved include Mos Def, Arctic Monkeys, Green Day, Lady Gaga and Norah Jones.

The inclusion of promo material treads uncomfortably close to the line between neutral search and sponsored content. Rather than simply delivering an artist’s most popular songs in response to a query, Google is allowing someone else to hand-pick at least some of the songs that appear in its results — a small but real betrayal of user trust. The video Google released to introduce its Discover Music program last week even notes that a search for Green Day brings back “links to Green Day’s most popular songs” — but none of the songs in the video is “Know Your Enemy,” a live version of which will receive special placement in Google searches, beginning tonight.

Lala co-founder Bill Nguyen said there isn’t any money changing hands that might influence a search placement, and described the promos as “the first step to using Google as a distribution mechanism.” He added that artists might soon consistently introduce new material through the search system as well, although he also acknowledged that Google, Lala, the labels and artists involved are all still treating this as a first experiment.

The promo songs will be in place “for a limited time,” says, and for now, they’re mostly remixes and live recordings chiefly of interest to avid fans and collectors. A few are available for free download, including the leadoff cut from Tim McGraw’s current No. 1 country album, but most can be streamed in full only once for free, after which time they’re available for purchase, either in Lala’s “web song” format or MP3 download — consistent with the company’s usual model.

Some initial assessments of Google’s music search compared it with the results that come back when a user searches for a stock ticker, with basic financial information highlighted and links to the search giant’s own finance page as well as several others such as Yahoo (s yhoo) and CNN Money, presented without obvious favoritism. But by allowing a music vendor or a record label to choose what comes up first in a music search, Google is actually allowing promotional material to intrude on its putatively neutral results — and compromising them, too.

UPDATE: The same promotional songs offered by Lala and highlighted in
Google’s search results will also be offered by iLike, a MySpace
property acquired during summer 2009 and Google’s other primary music
search partner. While not “exclusive” to Lala, the songs will still be
available only through Google and those two search partners, and will
receive featured placement among Google’s search results.