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Analysis Google says it hides the inner workings of its search engine because it doesn't want websites and advertisers gaming the thing. But what's to stop Google from gaming its own search engine?
That's the issue at the heart of the European Commission's investigation into Google's search and ad practices, formally announced Tuesday morning, and it's a question that extends well beyond the three small outfits that complained to the EU.
Google, you see, is not just a search engine. It's a multi-billion–dollar company that offers countless other internet services involving everything from news search and image search to video hosting, maps, finance, and even price-comparison shopping. And Google's search engine is, well, not just a search engine. Now controlling as much as 85 per cent of the search market, this de facto internet gateway is also a place where Google can deliver its own services to netizens across the globe. YouTube, Google Maps, Google Product Search, and any other Google service — as well as any service Google might build in future years — all have an obvious advantage over competitors.
This is particularly obvious when you consider Google's so-called Universal Search, where Google inserts links from its own services into prominent positions on its search-result pages. But the advantage extends across the length and breadth of the company's search engine, as Google — and Google alone —– has complete insight into how this internet gateway operates. Competing services are largely in the dark.
In its complaint to the European Union — filed in February 2010 —– UK-based price-comparison outfit Foundem accuses Google of "exploiting its dominance of search in ways that stifle innovation, suppress competition, and erode consumer choice." The complaint makes two arguments. It alleges that Google used "discriminatory penalties" to remove certain sites from its organic search results regardless of relevance, and it claims that Universal Search is transforming Google's search engine into an "immensely powerful marketing channel" for its own services.
Speaking with The Register this spring, Foundem founder and CEO Shivaun Raff summed up the complaint: "You have an overwhelmingly dominant search engine. 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, Raff says, has felt this firsthand. In 2006, algorithmic changes effectively removed Foundem from Google's organic search results and all but prevented the company from purchasing ad placement via Google AdWords. The company spent more than three years fighting for a return to Google's search engine, and it wasn't until Foundem took its story public — but before the EU complaint — that Google agreed to do so. In the meantime, Google introduced Universal Search, and according to Foundem, Mountain View has used the setup to boost its own price comparison service, Google Product Search, to the top of the market.
Google's ranking of leading UK price-comparison sites across a broad sample of product- and price-comparison–related search terms, as of 29 January 2010. Google Product Search results are shown in red. Other price comparison service results are shown in shades of green (source: Foundem)
Two other vertical-search outfits filed complaints with the EU: Ciao, now owned by Microsoft, and the France-based ejustice.fr. But Foundem is the complainant to go completely public with its story, and the meat of the EU's formal investigation looks to address Foundem's claims: "The Commission will investigate whether Google has abused a dominant market position in online search by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results of competing services which are specialised in providing users with specific online content such as price comparisons (so-called vertical search services) and by according preferential placement to the results of its own vertical search services in order to shut out competing services," reads Tuesday's statement from the European Commission.
Foundem has called on the EU to prevent Google from ever discriminating in favor of its own services and to ensure that when Google does displays links from its own services, they're clearly labelled as such. Its complaint also says that Google and other search engines should be more transparent about discriminatory penalties and provide a formal appeals process so that "errors" in results-placement can be quickly addressed.
Which is only reasonable.
The company does not want Google to expose its search and ad algorithms. Foundem realizes that such a move would allow sites to game the system. "We've never argued with the need for penalties. You need to have penalties because spam masquerades as original content. You need some way of removing it. This is a necessary part of any search engine process," Foundem CTO and founder Adam Raff told The Register following the European Commission's announcement. "What is completely unacceptable is when, with such penalties in place, the rationale behind those penalties [is not provided] and there's no mechanism for appeal."
Next page: The great whitelist hope
My existing Google account
is non-existent, and will remain in that state.
Getting rid of price comparisons was good actually
If we stick to the question of "price comparison" I'd rather have _NONE_ of them anywhere on the first page unless I have explicitly put price in the search terms.
There was a point about 3 years back where they were the biggest spammer of organic search results especially for computer kit. Google did something (we do not know what) to get them off that position so that there are organic search results in the first page. As someone who regularly searches for specs on obsolete hardware I am quite grateful for that.
It after that added its own comparison as a paid link through the bidding process.
If it has done this according to the same rules which apply to everyone, well tough luck, price comparison engines are more than welcome to bid for the same spot and if all of them are getting the boot out of the top the same way... Well tough luck... From a UE perspective that is better than the massive comparison pollution from 3 years back where the top 10 results on nearly anything were prise comparison sites.
That means nothing as far as Google and monopoly law by the way. That however is an entirely different matter.
I hate comparison websites
It used to be the case that if you wanted to find out something about a particular product - and in particular tech kit - and find a few places you can buy said item, all you had to do is tap in the name of the product into google, and it would find you the manufacturers website page, and several shop websites selling the item.
Now, you are lucky to get the manufacturers page, the rest of the page is full of these bullshit comparison websites. If google are now manipulating these comparison websites out of the first page, then well played, thanks muchly.
Comparison websites typically only show links to companies with whom they have pre-arranged to take a cut of the purchase cost, so in effect, they are showing me the companies who I should probably avoid, since they have a built in bilk to cover paying the comparison website. Fuck. That.
Also, IIRC google maps came after mapquest. The biggest difference between mapquest/streetmap and google maps was that google maps was a wondrous, draggable, zoomable, auto loading experience. The others were crappy little webpages showing a 9 map square grid, and you could click one of the exterior cells to move the map in that direction, resulting in a page load.
Once I had used them both, I never went back to mapquest/streetmap.