Google is by far the most popular search engine in the world, and its recent changes to push its social network, Google Plus, front-and-center in its search results have been met with some derision from users, but is it anti-competitive?
That’s the assertion made by Jeffrey Katz, the CEO of online shopping website Nextag and former CEO of travel website Orbitz, in a Wall Street Journal editorial that ran in print and online on Friday.
It’s easy to see when Google makes changes to its algorithms that effectively punish its competitors, including us. Our data, which we shared with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21, 2011, shows without a doubt that Google has stacked the deck. And as a result, it has shifted from a true search site into a commerce site—a commerce site whose search algorithm favors products and services from Google and those from companies able to spend the most on advertising.
Google, for its part, did not take the allegations lightly. The company quickly responded on its Public Policy Blog, with Amit Singhal, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, writing “the CEO of comparison shopping site Nextag makes several claims that are wrong — or suggests that Google start doing things that we already do.”
Singhal proceeds to “set the record straight,” offering a point-by-point rebuttal to six of Katz’s complaints. Throughout the blog post, Singhal repeatedly stresses that Google’s changes to its search product are only meant to help users, not do disadvantage Google’s competitors in other product arenas, such as shopping.
Of particular note, though is a section of Singhal’s response that actually links back to Google’s competitors in the search space. First Google quotes Katz’s “claim” from the Wall Street Journal op-ed before offering Google’s “fact” up in response:
Claim: “Google should provide consumers with access to the unbiased search results it was once known for—regardless of which company or organization owns the service. It should also allow users to reduce the number of ads shown or incorporate a user’s preferred services in search results. Fact:All major search engines — including Bing and Yahoo — long ago evolved beyond the simple “ten blue links,” and we believe that our users are often best served by providing better answers directly in search results. And if users don’t like our results, they can try Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, or even Google Minus Google.
While it is true that Google has a number of compelling competitors in the search market, none of these come anywhere close to the market-share that Google controls.
For the past eight years, as third-party web analytics firm StatCounter’s data goes, Google is the leading search engine by a clear margin, accounting for over 92 percent of all searches globally as of May 2012.
Singhal also doesn’t note that Bing and Yahoo aren’t really separate competitors anymore, since 2009, when Yahoo agreed to outsource its search bar to Microsoft’s Bing in exchange for the right to sell ads around Bing search results.
As outspoken Firefox developer Asa Dotzler wrote in the comments below Google’s post: “So, this could basically be summed up as ‘Google will do what ever it likes because Bing exists.’”
That said, it’s worth noting that Katz first testified against Google in a Senate antitrust hearing in September 2011, and the platform of his op-ed, The Wall Street Journal, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and the mogul is himself an avid critic of Google.
Whether Google uses its dominant search position to promote its own products over those of competitors is hardly a matter of debate, at least anecdotally, but whether or not it is doing so in defiance of U.S. antitrust law is another matter entirely.
That’s what the Federal Trade Commission has been looking to since June 2011, when it launched an investigation into Google’s search and advertising business.
Today, separately from Google’s op-ed fight, Bloomberg reported that Google had hired a prominent D.C. law firm to prepare the company’s co-founders, CEO Larry Page and company Google Glasses wearer-Sergey Brin, for questioning by the FTC. The agency is poised to wrap-up its investigation and decide whether or not to sue Google for violations by the end of 2012, according to Bloomberg.