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Google Distorts Its Own Record on Search Results

Google is under investigation in the U.S., Europe, Korea and around the world for potentially violating consumer protection laws with  deceptive search results, so it’s not surprising that the company is working hard to defend itself.

It’s also not surprising that its defenses fall short.

In response to Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today (FairSearch post on it), Google posted a Friday afternoon blog post titled, “Setting the record straight: competition in search.” Unsurprisingly, Google’s response was a mix of half-truths, non-denial denials, and otherwise misleading Google-speak that failed to address the concerns that consumer advocates and legal authorities have raised about the company’s anticompetitive business practices.

Here’s a look behind a few of Google’s statements of ‘fact’:

  • Our unpaid, natural search results are never influenced by payment.” Law enforcement authorities are currently reviewing whether Google’s presentation of information on its main search page is misleading or deceptive for users. Most users probably do not realize that Google’s ‘universal search’ policy places its own products and services at or near the top of every first page of results, regardless of whether it would appear at the top in ‘natural’ search results. Or as Google VP Marissa Mayer has said, “To the degree that we host content, we ultimately have a monetary incentive to drive people to those pages if those pages have ads on it.”
  • We built search to help users, not websites.” Initially, Google said it wanted to get people off its pages and to where they were going as quickly as possible. Quoting Larry Page of 2004, “Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible.” That sounds like a search engine built for users. But now, the company’s business strategy is to keep users on Google’s pages as long as possible – by steering users to its own sites, regardless of how useful or relevant they may be. It seems Google built search not for users, but for Google, in order to maintain and extend its monopoly position into new specialized areas of search.
  • “Our algorithms are always designed to give users the most relevant results.” Look no further than Google’s new Flight Search product, which only lists links to airlines and one non-airline site – excluding all other online travel agency (OTA) sites such as Expedia and meta-search sites such as KAYAK that often provide more and lower-cost airfare and other offerings than do the airline sites directly. On Flight Search in particular, one consumer advocate remarked, “Google and the airlines have a sweetheart deal with each other, and the consumers are getting screwed.” Most relevant results or favoring its own sites and preferred partners?
  • “Our auction-based advertising system, which takes into account relevance and bids, is designed to provide a level playing field on which placement is not automatically awarded to the highest bidder.” With over more than 80% of search advertising worldwide, Google controls search advertising prices in two specific ways:
  1. Google assigns advertisers a “quality score,” which can be lowered without warning and with no explanation, Google can manipulate paid search to make it more costly or difficult for competitors to buy advertising on Google to reach consumers. The placement of ads on Google is determined through an auction in which advertisers submit bids for search terms. The bid is the amount that the advertiser is willing to pay each time a user clicks on its ad.  The lower the quality score assigned to a bidder, the higher a price the advertiser has to bid to win the auction.
  2. Google’s dominant share in general search makes its paid search advertising platform,  AdWords, a “must buy” for businesses that advertise online. Google uses this power to lock in advertisers, imposing limits on advertisers’ ability to port their AdWords data other ad platforms using third party tools and preventing advertisers from syncing updates or changes to their campaign data across multiple platforms. In fact, this is one of the concerns that the European Commission is currently investigating.

It’s interesting that Google decided to respond to the op-ed of Nextag’s CEO. Perhaps it’s because his testimony during the Senate’s “Power of Google” hearing this past fall was so compelling – he said he would not have started Nextag again knowing what he does now about Google’s anticompetitive business practices.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that Google is once again distorting the ‘facts’ in an attempt to mask its dominance over the Internet ecosystem and defend its anticompetitive business practices.