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Schmidt answers Google antitrust claims

Defends Universal Search

Google boss Eric Schmidt has said that antitrust investigations targeting the company in the EU and Texas are "stimulated" by interested competitors and that — contrary to one of the complaints filed in the EU — the company's "Universal Search" setup does not unfairly drive traffic to Google services at the expense of rivals.

"It appears that those investigations — and that's your term not mine — are stimulated by our competitors who have a vested interest in the outcome," Schmidt said today during an appearance in San Francisco, after a question from The Register. "With Universal Search, we have chosen a [model], as a vendor of information, that produces the best end-user outcome — sometimes that's a Google source, sometimes that's another source.

"It's not OK to say you shouldn't use any Google sources. It's not OK that you should use only Google sources. We, in fact, use a mixture, and we believe the investigations will show that this is what's going on."

We also asked Schmidt if Universal Search — which gives prominent placement to links from other Google services, including Google Maps, Google Product Search, and Google News — uses separate algorithms from the company's primary search results, but he did not address this portion of the question.

There are certain Universal Search results that point directly to content from third-party companies. When Universal Search serves up video results, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin pointed out to us earlier this month at the Google Instant launch in San Francisco, you will see links from third-party sites as well as YouTube. But in some categories, such as product search and maps, it would appear that Google services receive a clear advantage over competitors. If Google serves up a map, for instance, that map comes from Google Maps.

Speaking with The Register at the Instant launch, Brin said something very similar to Schmidt. "When people search on Google, they want us to give them the best possible information that we have, whether it comes from a books corpus or a discussion forum or a webpage. It's important for us to serve our users. If we hid those results for legal considerations, that would be pretty awkward."

In February, Google revealed that the EU was investigating antitrust complaints from three European companies over its search service. Among the complainants was the UK-based product search outfit Foundem, a competitor, in essence, to Google Product Search. The company's complaint is under seal, but Foundem has discussed its argument with The Register, and part of the complaint is echoed in a filing with the US Federal Communications Commission.

Foundem argues that Google's Universal Search favors Google services over competitors. And it says that when standard search results are served up, certain third-party sites are not subject to the same algorithms as others because they're on whitelists.

"You have an overwhelmingly dominant search engine," Foundem CEO Shivaun Raff has told The Reg. "If you add to that that search engine's ability to apply discriminatory penalties — they're discriminatory because some services are manually rendered immune through white lists — and you add the ability of that search engine to preferentially insert its own services at or near the top of the search results, all of that adds up to an unparalleled and unassailable competitive advantage."

Foundem contends that Google services should be subject to the same algorithms as others, and that when Google does insert its own services, the services should be clearly marked. "These should be clearly differentiated from real search results just as sponsored links are," Foundem says.

The UK outfit has also called on Google to provide more information on its use of search whitelists, and to offer a formal means of appealing the decisions of its search engineers. In 2006, a Google change effectively removed Foundem from Mountain View's search engine and all but prevented Foundem from purchasing search ads via Google AdWords, a situation that took years to resolve.

Foundem is also one of the companies mentioned in connection with a Google antitrust investigation by the Texas attorney general. But it's unclear whether Foundem is actually cooperating with the Texas AG.

Foundem is a member of ICOMP, an online-competition organization partly funded by Microsoft, and Google has pointed to this association in its two blogs posts about the antitrust investigations. This is likely what Schmidt is referring to when he says the investigations are "stimulated by our competitors who have a vested interest in the outcome."

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

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