As the Feds and EU may see it…
Although the FTC has an open inquiry into Google’s business practices, the agency has been relatively tight lipped about the information it’s requesting and what, specifically, it might be looking for. Google says it has been cooperating fully with the inquiry.
Allegations of anticompetitive behavior against Google primarily focus on the way Google promotes its own services and products over those from competitors. The practice is easy to see: type “marshall amp” into a Google search box and you’ll first see a link to marshallamps.com — which seems solid: Marshall is the company that makes what remains the signature amp of rock and roll.
Immediately below the Marshall Amplification link, you’ll see a series of links (with pictures) pointing to Google’s own shopping service, along with direct price quotes for selected Marshall products, along with an exhortation to “Find nearby.” If you’re a musical gear retailer, right now you’re hating Google. Nothing you do — no special, no promotion, no keyword buys, no stellar online reputation, no exhaustive encyclopedia of information about Marshall amps — is going to make Google position your service even on equal footing to Google’s own.
As for the vertical markets competing with Google as Bork suggests — well, don’t ask companies like Yelp or Nextag how they feel about that. In Yelp’s case, Google incorporated its content into Google Local without permission — then removed Yelp search results from Google’s general Web Search when Yelp, well, yelped. Similarly, companies that claim to offer vertical search services in specialized areas have found their services downshifted by shifts to Google’s ranking algorithm, apparently because Google’s interpretation of what’s best for consumers differs from theirs — and Google, naturally, claims to know best.
“Google is no longer in the business of sending people to the best sources of information on the Web,” testified Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. “It is impossible for any of Google’s competitors to be displayed as prominently as Google itself, even if Google’s own algorithm rates them higher. In some instances, Google simply excludes competitor results as a matter of design, not as a matter of objective, algorithmically-driven analysis.”
While Bork can’t see any instance where consumers have been harmed through Google’s augmentation and refinement of its search services, others argue that consistently favoring Google products and services while claiming to offer unbiased search results does harm consumers: If there is a better source of information or service that offers what consumers want, consumers will never be able to discover it.
These concerns also inform anti-competition accusations against Google in Europe, where the company is being sued by the likes of UK price comparison service Foudem, legal search engine ejustice.fr, and the Microsoft-owned German shopping site Caio — Microsoft has filed its own antitrust complaint against Google in Europe. Accusations there also extend to the contract requirements Google imposes with its online advertising platform that restrict clients from using third-party ad-pricing comparison services.
Google is more than just search
Bork is not exactly an impartial observer to Google’s anti-competition saga: He’s currently one of Google’s many high-profile advisors. However, his op-ed piece to the Chicago Tribune represents his own thinking and Bork is clear he is speaking for himself, not for Google.
Despite the rough and controversial path his legal career has taken, Robert Bork remains a heavyweight in the American legal community, particularly on antitrust matters. By framing the marketplace in which Google operates on very broad terms — including television, print, radio, and other media — Bork is arguably seeing the Internet in much the same way most of the technologically savvy see it — just another form of media.
Bork may be right that consumers can turn on a dime and simply switch to different search engines if they don’t like Google, but search is no longer Google’s sole offering. The sheer breadth of Google’s online and mobile product offerings make it almost impossible for consumers not to associate with Google. (Just try activating an Android device without setting up a Google account.) As these services mature — and Google’s tendrils of personalization and tracking permeate more consumers’ online and everyday lives, technology users really do face a lock-in dilemma. Sure, they can abandon Google services, but they may face losing their friends, contacts, social-networking service, photo albums, documents, calendars, and much more. Sure, Google makes most personal data exportable, but that doesn’t make it painless for consumers to switch to competitors — just possible. In theory.
The irony can be delicious. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.