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Google faces antitrust investigation in Texas

EU complaint echoed in US

Google is facing an antitrust investigation in Texas over claims the company unfairly manipulated results on its search engine.

The news was first reported on Friday by Search Engine Land, which said it received a tip that the investigation was underway. Search Engine Land said that Google confirmed the investigation, and five minutes later, Google published a blog post that discusses the matter at length.

"We've recently been approached by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, which is conducting an antitrust review of Google," the post read. "We look forward to answering their questions because we’re confident that Google operates in the best interests of our users."

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Texas Attorney General's office took our call and indicated it would respond by email, but it has yet to do so. The office told Search Engine Land that its policy is not to acknowledge investigations of any kind.

According to Google, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has asked the company for information regarding three companies, including UK-based price comparison engine Foundem, which is also the subject of a Google antitrust investigation in the European Union. The other two companies, New York-based TradeComet and Ohio-based myTriggers, also operate vertical search engines, and both have filed their own antitrust lawsuits against Google.

Foundem CEO Shivaun Raff, TradeComet, and MyTriggers did not respond to requests for comment.

With its blog post, Google indicates that the investigation involves questions over the "fairness" of its search engine. "Occasionally, we’re asked about the 'fairness' of our search engine – why do some websites get higher rankings than others?" the post reads. And as it did when it revealed the European Union investigation, the company downplayed such complaints.

"Given that not every website can be at the top of the results, or even appear on the first page of our results, it’s unsurprising that some less relevant, lower quality websites will be unhappy with their ranking," the post continues.

And in another echo of its blog post on the EU investigation, it tied each of the complainants to Microsoft and attempted to discredit each of them. Google pointed out that both TradeComet and MyTriggers are represented by law firms that have also done antitrust work for Microsoft and that Foundem is a member of ICOMP, an online-competition organization partly funded by Microsoft.

But Foundem has told The Reg that they approached ICOMP on their own and that their argument against Google is their own.

More importantly, Google's characterization of Foundem's complaint is misleading – if not completely incorrect. According to Google, Foundem claims that "Google's algorithms demote their site because they are a direct competitor to our search engine." But Foundem has never argued against Google's algorithmic decisions, and though for a time, Foundem vanished from Google's search results and its required minimum bid for ad placements skyrocketed, those problems have since been fixed.

It's also worth noting that Foundem is not a direct competitor of Google's main search. Foundem is a price comparison search engine that competes with the sub-search-engine Google Product Search.

Foundem's concern is two-fold: that Google's "Universal Search" setup – in which certain Google services receive prominent placement on results pages – favors those services over everyone else's, and that thanks to Google's use of search whitelists, certain sites aren't subject to the same algorithmic treatment as others.

The argument against Universal Search has an obvious parallel. In essence, Foundem is arguing that much as Microsoft unfairly bundled applications with Windows, Google is unfairly "bundling" its own results on its search engine, which controls an estimated 85 per cent of the market – or more.

Search Engine Land echoes Google's characterization of the matter. "All the companies named above have one thing in common. They are vertical search engines that allege Google is trying to keep them down because of the potential threat they face," it says. But at least in the case of Foundem – who we've spoken to at length about its issues with Google – this does not properly describe the situation.

As Google points out, TradeComet's antitrust case against the company was dismissed. But it does not point out that it was dismissed because it was not brought in the correct venue. The myTriggers case is still pending.

Microsoft has said that it believes Google deserves antitrust scrutiny. But it denies that it has directed antitrust suits against the company. ®

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