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February 25, 2010

Google and Antitrust Accusations

Google's popularity in search has been a constant problem in the recent years, especially for competitors and authorities. Some even called Google a search monopoly, even if there are many other search engines. Changing your search engine is certainly easier than switching to a new browser or a new operating system, but for many people Google is synonymous with web search.

The most recent complaints are from three European sites. Wired reports that "the European Commission has acknowledged receipt of three antitrust complaints against Google. Google claims it has done nothing wrong, and disclosed that British price comparison site Foundem, French legal search engine and Microsoft-owned Ciao from Bing were the complainants."

The three sites complained that Google abused its dominant position to promote its own services, while competing sites were penalized. Google says that it doesn't manipulate search results: "We understand how important rankings can be to websites, especially commercial ones, because a higher ranking typically drives higher volumes of traffic. (...) Our algorithms aim to rank first what people are most likely to find useful and we have nothing against vertical search sites -- indeed many vertical search engines like, Opodo and Expedia typically rank high in Google's results."

An interesting document submitted by Foundem to the Federal Communications Comission claims that Google uses "universal" search results to promote its own services:

"In May 2007, Google introduced what it calls "Universal Search" — a mechanism for automatically inserting its own services into prominent positions within its natural search results. (...) Universal Search transforms Google's ostensibly neutral search engine into an immensely powerful marketing channel for Google's other services. When coupled with Google's 85% share of the global search market, this gives Google an unparalleled and virtually unassailable competitive advantage, reaching far beyond the confines of search."

The document shows how Google Maps and Google Product Search became more popular after Google introduced Universal Search, while concluding that "Google can divert traffic from its competitors to its own services largely at will."

It's obvious that Google's services are better represented in search results pages than 3 years ago: videos are frequently promoted to the top results page and most videos are hosted by YouTube, many searches return local search results from Google Maps, Google Books results are only indexed by Google and they're sometimes artificially promoted. Universal Search made Google's specialized search engines more visible.

Even if some might think that Google Search, Google Maps and Google News are completely different services, they're complimentary products that work better together. If you enter a query like [ny pizza], it makes sense to show local businesses from New York instead of search results that match the query. Google could show results from Yahoo Maps or Bing Maps, but it wouldn't be able to improve the quality of search results.

Google's competitors miss that Google doesn't have to send users to other web pages. Google's goal is to show the most relevant answers for a query. Sometimes the answer is displayed while you type a query, in other situations the answer can be found in the snippets or in the new rich snippets.

Google Squared is an example of advanced search engine that aggregates facts from the web and uses them to generate descriptive collections. Google reveals the sources, but few people actually click on the links.

As search engines become smarter, web pages will only become footnotes for automatically generated responses.

This blog is not affiliated with Google.