Google Faces Antitrust Inquiry

Focus on Google AntitrustThe European Commission love a good inquiry. Oracle, Apple and Microsoft have all been hit, and now they’ve now turned their legal turrets toward Google. Although Google have faced antitrust accusations in the US and Europe before, this is the first official inquiry into the company’s search and advertising services.

Are Search Results Fair?

The first aspect of the inquiry has been sparked by complaints from Foundem, a UK price comparison service, and ejustice.fr, a French legal search engine. Both accuse Google of relegating their websites to an unfairly low place in search engine results.

Google has denied that it deliberately penalizes sites which are a competitive threat to its own services. Independent SEO analysts have also pointed out that Foundem has little original content because it scrapes product information from other websites.

Google can certainly modify the indexing of individual sites — for example, domains can be blocked if they’re found to be spoofing content or engaging in black-hat SEO practices. However, would Google seriously consider these two sites to be a threat? If Google engaged in mass rank manipulation, it would involve a colossal amount of human effort and search results could become meaningless.

This aspect of the inquiry should be thrown out unless it can be categorically proven that Google are abusing their search dominance and hurting competitors. The floodgates will open if Foundem and ejustice.fr win owing to some legal technicality — every business will be able to claim their “rightful” search result position.

Are Advertising Costs Fair?

The second part of the inquiry centers on Google AdWords and has been raised by Ciao.

AdWords is possibly the largest advertising network on the net. Costs are set by auction; if you agree to pay 50c per advert click, you will normally appear above someone who’s paying 30c for the same search terms. However, Google set minimum bid levels and popular keywords can be seriously expensive — $10 or more.

This aspect of the inquiry could hit Google: they have the market dominance to artificially raise minimum bid prices. After all, a fair auction process should let you bid any amount — even if it means your advert is shown at 3am Sunday morning on page 57 of the search results.

Google has remarked that Ciao was acquired by Microsoft, is part of Bing, and can hardly be impartial. I’m no lawyer, but I think Google will need a better defense argument.

What do you think? Is Google being unfairly targeted? Or have they become too monolithic and rescinded on their promise to do no evil?

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  • MathieuMa

    Forget about ejustice – it’s an unknown company which seems to know enough people to do what they are doing.
    Their site is empty, they know nothing about SEO (they have no content, use mostly JS or iframe, have no proper title on their result page). After this they dare saying they got desindexed from google – despite not having a single page indexed with the words they mention – even in yahoo’s index.
    Just go visit their site to make yourself an idea, they are a just frontend for google CSE with properly selected legal site (hence they positioning as “legal search engine”)
    They deserve their non apparance, as google put high results WITH APPROPRIATE CONTENT – why the hell would they link to another empty search engine using their own engine ???

  • koyama

    There is no doubt that Google is messing around with the search results. The question is just how much.

    We recently had the incident where the search term “climategate” suddenly disappeared as a suggestion until protests became too massive. (As of writing it is still blocked on YouTube). This proves that Google IS ready to mess with searches, at least to some extent, in this case to protect their green investments.

  • Tarh

    Really? I just went to YouTube and received suggestions for “climategate” when searching for “climat gat” or “climatgat”. Searching for “climate” provides a suggestion for “climate change hoax” which contains several videos referencing the hacking incident near the top of the results.

  • AnonJr

    Nobody expects the EU Inquisition!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHGOl-jfUK0

  • Anonymous

    Of course Google does this!
    But they’re not in the business of doing things manually. They probably have something similar to whats called “Quality Score” in Adwords, ie an algorithm that optimizes their revenues by ranking sites in such a way that their paid results will not become irrelevant.

  • koyama

    @Tarh: As you can see “climategate” does not appear as a suggested keyword in YouTube search.
    http://img190.imageshack.us/img190/8048/ss20100225111614.png
    This, we can call “suggest censorship”.

    I think Google just forgot to remove “climategate” from the “suggest blacklist” on YouTube once they decided to lift the suggest censorship on Google for that particular word. It has been described how Google would first censor “climategate”, then, when multi-word suggestions such as “climategate hoax” started appearing in suggest, these would be censored too.

    For a long time I have been praising Google, but such bad behavior has led me to become increasingly critical to put it mildly.

  • Stevie D

    I don’t see that Foundem have a case at all. Google has a duty to rank original content over scraped or copied content and real sites over directory sites. When I click on a link in Google, just about the worst thing that can happen is for it to take me to a page that doesn’t have the information but simply has further search results or indexes.

  • USPatriot

    I applaud this decision. If you go after MS, you better go after everyone else. Deja Vu. Hey, now Bing has a greater chance of catching up with Google! God, I love irony.

  • W2ttsy

    considering the crisis in Greece at the moment, and the risk that the entire EU could go bankrupt as a result, i’d say they have alot more to worry about than google’s supposed anti trust breaches… I’m sick of them nosing into affairs of American companies when it’s little to none of their concern…. They are so busy fixing everyone else’s supposed problems that they arent doing anything about their own.

  • http://www.xguides.net Dakota G

    As far as Google controlling an unfair amount of the market, I completely agree. However, they do provide the best service, and have not gotten to the top through force. (unlike the way that Microsoft controls its uninformed customers; IE, MSN, Hotmail, Bing, are all defaults)

    I don’t think there is any easy solution to the problem, and I really hope that it doesn’t go to a court where the judges are wholly uninformed and undereducated about this new technology. This will most likely lead to a hasty and unrealistic outcome.

  • Anonymous

    I think these are the wrong things to be taking them to court for. how about holding the music industry by the balls or taking far too long to take videos of gang rape down or distributing copyrighted content via youtube or holding content for all the books, ever without paying the publishers. or hows about making aerial photographs of residential areas searchable by theives. I think they have some great services but i dont think they give a damn about the implications of what they are doing. As long as it suits them theyll do what they want. time to change my email address again….

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @W2ttsy

    I’m sick of them nosing into affairs of American companies when it’s little to none of their concern

    Google and all the other companies trade and make lots of money in the EU and throughout the world. That’s their choice, but they must abide with local laws. It doesn’t matter where the company was set up or operates from.

    If you apply your argument to other industries, the US would not have any right to investigate Toyota.

  • Gobrinton

    This comment may be a little late but, I have seen evidence of Google artificially raising Adwords bids. I used to run an Adwords campaign using very rare and “tiny niche” key phrases. Most of the time and for most of the key phrases, I was the only paid ad on the page. Yet, Google kept forcing me to raise my bids every week or so in order to retain top ranking among my competitors. (Again, I was the only ad on the serps with no competitors.) Go figure.