First of all, you should know that I'm considered a Google apologist. I admit it, I like and respect Google. I have no relationship with the company, other than using Google ads on my blog, which has never brought me any income. I wrote a book about Google's founders and how the company got started. I was paid by the book publisher, not Google, and I used my own reporting plus the reporting and research of three other journalists, all of whom were paid by me. My opinions come from that reporting.
THE FTC IS INVESTIGATING WHETHER GOOGLE BIASES ITS SEARCH RESULTS
The FTC decision to investigate Google is utter nonsense, a waste of time and money that distracts the FTC from investigating real abuses. Here's what Google has to say about it. (Not much useful. Google is bad at defending itself.)
The Wall Street Journal broke the story that the probe was going forward yesterday. It pointed out that the probe will look into whether Google "unfairly channels users to its own growing network of services at the expense of rivals." The European Commission is investigating the same thing.
In an article today, WSJ says the probe could be "as much of a watershed event for antitrust policy as the Justice Department's landmark lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s."
GOOGLE IS NOT MICROSOFT
I was a reporter at Business Week, then editor of Upside magazine during the 1990s. I followed the Microsoft case carefully and wrote about it. Microsoft was using a clearly anti-competitive practice: PC makers had to put Windows on EVERY ONE of their machines, or they would have to pay a higher price. This wasn't simple volume discounting. If you sold 100,000 PCs a year and put Windows on every one, you got the cheapest price. If you sold a million computers a year and put Windows on 900,000 of them with 100,000 of them using, say Linux, you did not get hte cheapest price. It kept competing operating systems out of the PC market.
There is no smoking gun for Google, merely complaints from competitors offered without evidence.
SO WHY IS THE FTC INVESTIGATING?
The Journal article, like the New York Times, relies on an organization called FairSearch.org to articulate the complaints against Google. FairSearch.org exists only to raise these complaints against Google. It's sponsored by Google competitors who claim that Google doesn't put their result high enough in search results: Microsoft, Expedia, Kayak, Travelocity.
The comments from FairSearch.Org are as useless as the ones from Google. Quoted in the New York Times:
“Google engages in anticompetitive behavior across many vertical categories of search that harms consumers,” the organization said in a statement. “The result of Google’s anticompetitive practices is to curb innovation and investment in new technologies by other companies.”
What a bunch of boilerplate catch-phrases. Harm consumers. Anticompetitive practices. Curb innovation. Prevent investment in new technologies. Just the kinds of things you need to claim in order to get anti-trust organizations to investigate.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
I looked into the "Fact sheet" at FairSearch.org. Nothing but bun.
Google has power: "On average, 34% of Google's traffic went to the No. 1 result." No kidding. That's true of any search results page. So Google is big. Being big, even being a monopoly, is NOT illegal, as long as you got your dominant market share legally.
It follows with more of the same: "Google dominates search and advertising." "This dominance adds up to power." Hold the presses! Important news if I've never heard any!
Search manipulation. "Google can program its algorithm to exclude, penalize, or promote specific sites or whole categories of sites." Notice that it says CAN, not DOES.
Oh, here's the evidence, according to FairSearch.org--In 1998 Google's founders wrote: : “[A] search engine could add a small factor to search results from friendly companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market.”
This quote came from a paper Larry and Sergey wrote while at Stanford (you should read it yourself.) But this was an argument about why such practices should NOT be done. Nobody remembers that when Google was just getting started, Larry and Sergey did not want it to be ad-supported. Why? Every search engine on the market biased their search results toward advertisers. Larry and Sergey described this as "insidious" in that paper.
Excerpts from that paper: "we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of theconsumers." "search engine bias is particularly insidious."
These were all arguments about WHY Larry and Sergey did not want an ad-supported search engine. When Google was released, it was the ONLY search engine that did not use this bias. It worked. Google gave better results. Eventually, Larry and Sergey decided that advertising was the only way to go, so they set their standards: Ads had to be useful and relevant to users, not annoying and distracting, and advertisers would never influence search results.
HAVE LARRY AND SERGEY CHANGED THEIR STRIPES?
Sure, the question now is, have they become corrupted over time? Isn't it inevitable?
As a journalist, I say unequivocably that it is not inevitable (your opinion may vary.) This practice has long been held by every respectable newspaper in the world. Advertising never influences editorial. At Business Week, the reporters were not even allowed to talk to the ad reps. Every news organization, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, knows that if advertisers influence editorial, readers will notice, you will lose credibility, and people will stop paying you for your news.
Larry and Sergey know the same thing. Bias the search results and people will realize they're not getting the best results any more.
MY OWN TEST OF BIAS
Let's put it to the test. On FairSearch.org's site, they quote a MapQuest executive:
"When people are doing searches for maps or directions for the city of New York, Google Maps comes up as the first search result in the organic (not the paid ads) listings."
Go to Google's home page and type in the word MAP. The result I got was that Google finished the word with "quest" (It also offered to finish the word as "maps" "maplestory" "map my run" "maps.yahoo.com"
The results, in order:
1. Mapquest Maps - Driving Directions - Map
2. Directions - MapQuest.com Features
3. Yahoo! Maps, Driving Directions, and Traffic
4. MapQuest 4 Mobile for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes...
The rest of the results on the homepage are for MapQuest, including the news section.
Finally, at the bottom, after 13 search results, you get "Pages similar to www.mapquest.com" with these results:
1. Google Maps
2. Maps & Directions (MSN's mapblast.com)
3. Rand McNally
So why the claim of bias agains MapQuestt? Because most people type "maps" instead of "map." When you do that, the results are:
2. Yahoo! Maps
3. Mapquest Maps
4. Bing Maps
5. Maps - National Geographic
...and so on. Why the difference? First of all, Only Google and Yahoo were smart enough to start their URLs with the word "maps" -- maps.google.com, maps.yahoo.com. So when you type 'maps' those are the best fits. MapQuest is www.mapquest.com.
This gives no evidence of bias. It could be that on the 'maps' search Google biases its own results over Yahoo, or it could be cecause more people use Google Maps and more people link to it. You need more evidence than that to find Google guilty of bias.
There are many other examples. Type a stock ticker symbol into Google (YHOO or GOOG, for example). You get a top line that lists the major finance sites for info about that stock. There is a bias: Google Finance is farthest to the left, followed by Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Daily Finance, CNN Money, Reuters. But they're all on the same line. The first actual search result is Yahoo Finance.
I just don't see the evidence here. Check out the FairSearch.org fact sheet for yourself, and tell me if you see anything other than accusations and innuendo with no evidence.
So, fine, an investigation by the FTC and EU may help keep Google honest, if it isn't already. My gripe is that the whole thing unfairly biases people against Google in the press, which just reports the facts, not opinions like me.
But at least I back up my opinions with evidence.
Notice how I snuck in those ads? Hey, I'm not above self-promotion. But this isn't a news or search site, it's my personal blog. And at least I'm honest about it.