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Rivals fume as FTC clears Google of fiddling search results


By Stewart Mitchell

Posted on 4 Jan 2013 at 09:52

Rivals have reacted with dismay to the US Federal Trade Commission's ruling that Google didn't manipulated search results to hurt competition.

The search giant had been facing censure over claims that it downgraded rival company results in search listings, but a 20-month-long probe into the market found no evidence that Google had hurt competition via search, although the company agreed to change some of its business practices to allay antitrust fears.

"Regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the commission," said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC.

"Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of US law."

Google’s ability to get away with these practices has often depended on its ability to confuse, obfuscate, and intimidate

The decision was met with derision by rivals, who had claimed that Google harmed their businesses by manipulating search results to promote the company's own products.

Microsoft said the commission had ignored evidence that it believed showed the search giant promoted its own interests. "Google has long said that it merely aims to offer customers the most relevant answer to their query, and the FTC accepted that view," the company complained.

"Yet we know that Google routinely and systematically heavily promotes its own services in search results. Is Google+ really more relevant than Facebook? Are Google’s travel results better than those offered by Expedia, Kayak and others? We also know that Google ranks shopping results (the most important category commercially) in part on the basis of how much advertisers pay to Google for placement."

Search confusion

Another search company – UK-based Foundem, the first to raise the issue with regulators – also called the ruling a missed opportunity, suggesting the FTC investigators had failed to understand the scale and technicalities of the issue.

"We are concerned that the FTC’s reluctance to litigate against these abusive practices may stem more from misconceptions about the mechanics and financial incentives underlying the abuse than from the constraints of US antitrust law," founder Shivaun Raff wrote in a letter to the US officials.

"In the familiar bricks-and-mortar world, Google’s anticompetitive behaviour would have been obvious to all. But, in the unfamiliar and seemingly impenetrable world of internet search, Google’s ability to get away with these practices has often depended on its ability to confuse, obfuscate, and intimidate."

Google welcomed the decision and claimed: "The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition."

Sanctions agreed

While the search neutrality claims were dismissed by the FTC, Google has agreed to change several working practices that officials suggest contorted competition, including action over patents and the way companies that advertise with Google can access their data.

“Google will meet its prior commitments to allow competitors access – on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms – to patents on critical standardised technologies needed to make popular devices such as smartphones, laptop and tablet computers, and gaming consoles," the FTC said.

Google also agreed not to seek sales bans of rival products amid patent disputes.

In a separate letter of commitment, "Google has agreed to give online advertisers more flexibility to simultaneously manage ad campaigns on Google’s AdWords platform and on rival ad platforms," the FTC said.

The FTC also said it had obtained a commitment from Google to "refrain from misappropriating online content from vertical websites that focus on specific categories such as shopping or travel for use in its own vertical offerings".

Although Google sees the ruling as a vindication, it still faces questions from EU regulators, who may yet take a harder line than their US counterparts.

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User comments

Fine line...

If they promote their own products too heavily, the FTC will fine them, if they don't promote their products enough, the SEC will fine them for not performing their duties to their shareholders.

That said, they did get more than a slap on the wrist.

The changes they are forced to make to AdWords is good news.

Likewise they can't scrape specialist results any more, which only got a minor mention in your article.

Likewise that they are now forced to seek arbitration on their standards based patents and must agree to FRAND terms, before they can issue an injunction is good news.

By big_D on 4 Jan 2013

Good news

As I understand it, the majority of the plaintiffs were search squatters like Kelkoo.

By tirons1 on 4 Jan 2013

I have never seen Google’s say their search is independent, why should they not promote their own services. When you go in to Tesco they don’t advertise Barclay Card they advertise their own credit card why would Google be any different. They do of course have to ensure relevance or users will stop using it, but that is a commercial consideration rather than a legal one.

I have also noticed that if you can’t figure out how to do something in Excel, a Google search normally takes you to some forum posting from someone with a similar problem that has now been resolved. Bing takes you to MS vague help pages which are normally useless as you probably already looked in the help menu.

By PhilGQ on 4 Jan 2013

I agree with PhilGQ. Google is ultimately a company making money out of supplying search results. It is in Google's interest for web users to trust the results of searches so that they keep coming back.

No one is forced to use Google and there are plenty of alternative search engines available for those who feel Google's results are too biased towards their own services.

By James_Clark on 4 Jan 2013

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