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Fact-Checking Google: (Having and) Favoring its Own Products

At the Sept. 21 Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was asked whether the company biases its results in favor of its own products or services.

At the time, Schmidt testified that he was “not aware of any unnecessary or strange boosts or biases” in Google’s algorithm for Google’s own products and services. (Right about the same time Schmidt said “I’d have to look at the specific results” and “I’d need to see – I’d actually need to see the technical details to give you a direct answer.”)

Six weeks later, you’d think we’d get a straight-forward answer. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as evidenced by Schmidt’s response to Senator Blumenthal’s continued questioning on Google favoring its own content.

Instead of answering the Senator’s question, Schmidt tries to disguise Google’s bias by engaging in a convoluted discussion about “oneboxes,” “thematic results,” and whether Google’s vertical search offerings are really “separate products and services.”  Schmidt repeatedly claims that the “premise” of the questions is wrong, and therefore, he cannot answer.

But come on. Google Maps, Gmail, Google News, Blogger, Google+ — Google even has an entirely separate page of Google “products” (their words, not ours). Here’s how a reporter from U.K. newspaper The Register described the exchange:

“Throughout the letter, the one-time Google CEO repeatedly contended that the company doesn’t make separate products because each new offering has universal search results built in.

“But convincing Congress to accept Schmidt’s argument might prove difficult, given that Google consistently talks up new offerings as products and services, sometimes without even bothering to place universal search results front-and-centre from the start.

“Google+ is a good example here. The world’s largest ad broker only inserted search into that “product” after debuting it for a limited test field that just so happened to have, according to Google, millions of users signed up at launch.”

Perhaps Schmidt’s non-answer gets directly to a point he recently made at the Washington Ideas Forum. “I have learned to not have an opinion on how people choose to spend their time. We just want to spend them — have them spend more time on Google doing it” and why wouldn’t he? Some of Google’s most valuable ad space is on these secondary pages and therefore it has a pretty powerful incentive to steer users toward those pages and away from those of competitors.

Either way, if Google doesn’t have products, somebody better update this.