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The great whitelist hope

The playing field is nowhere close to level, Foundem says, unless Google opens up about how the system works. "At a minimum, we want more transparency," Adam Raff said.

One of the big sticking points is whitelists. Foundem says that Google uses whitelists to opt certain sites out of its standard algorithms. It says that Google support reps discussed these whitelists with the company on several occasions, and it provides email messages as evidence. Whitelists, Foundem argues, allow Google to discriminate against sites whenever it chooses.

But Google denies it uses whitelists. Company spokesman Adam Kovacevich reiterated this denial on the phone with The Register on Tuesday morning. It's this sort of contradiction, Foundem says, that causes outsiders so much pain.

It's also problematic, Foundem says, that Google apparently uses separate algorithms for Universal Search. According to Foundem, this is another means of discrimination. "Crucially, the placement of Google’s own services is subject to different algorithms and relevance criteria than those used to place everyone else’s services. This special treatment gives Google absolute discretion over how aggressively it favours its own services," the company says.

"Through this mechanism, Google can leverage its overwhelming dominance of search into virtually any market of its choosing, such as mapping, video, price comparison, travel search, financial search, property search, music downloads, and books."

Using Universal Search, Foundem says, Google has also used its discriminatory market power to squeeze out the likes of MapQuest in the online maps market:

Goggle Product Search statistics

Unique monthly US visitors to Google Maps and MapQuest between January 2007 and November 2009 (Source: ComScore)

And in much the same way, Foundem says, Google could potentially use Universal Search to dominate practically any market. "[The EU investigation] is really important because there are so many stakeholders in this. Any person or business that uses the internet is a stakeholder in the outcome of this case," Shivaun Raff told us on Tuesday morning. "Google can extend [Universal Search] to any service."

Naturally, Google paints a vastly different picture. As part of a long statement sent to The Register in response to the Commission's announcement, the company downplays claims that it affords its own services preferential treatment, saying that its sole aim is to serve users — i.e., the people who use its search engine.

"With respect to showing our 'own' services and 'preferential treatment,' our only goal is to provide the best answer for users — and sometimes the most useful answer isn’t 'ten blue links,' but a map for an address query, or a series of images for a query like 'pictures of Egyptian pyramids.'" the company says. "We often provide these results in the form of 'quick answers' at the top of the page, because our users want a quick answer."

That is undoubtedly a Google goal. But the company doesn't acknowledge that in showing these "answers," it is — in many cases — pushing its own services, including Google Maps and Google Product Search. The company's statement even seems to downplay the notion that it runs its own services (notice the "own" in quotes, above).

Pressed on this, Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich reiterated that Google is interested in providing users with the best answer, and he indicated that with Universal Search, Google is not showing its own content but merely content from others. This is true in some cases. But not always. When Google points to video with Universal Search, for instance, a vast majority comes from YouTube. Google Maps is part of Universal Search. And so on.

In the same conversation, Kovacevich criticized Foundem for not offering original content, saying that 79 per cent of its content is "duplicated" from other sites. Google's argument goes in several different directions. After criticizing the fundamental makeup of Foundem's site, it says it has no problem with vertical search engines and that it returned Foundem to Google's search results because the site improved in some way. At one point, Kovacevich even said that YouTube videos are not Google content. But the overarching message seems to be that as Google seeks to serve the user, Foundem is of little consequence.

By contrast, Foundem argues that Google is actively entering a new and separate market and pushed competitors out. "In a way, they're late to the party," Adam Raff said. "They're just now realizing how important vertical search is."

We also asked Google's Kovacevich if the company uses separate algorithms for Universal Search — as we've asked Google before — but he did not provide an answer. It's a telling omission — for many reasons — and it leads us back to Foundem's core complaint: there's not a level playing field, and, well, Google won't admit that there's not a level playing field.

"At some point, we hope that Google is going to stop confusing the issues and flanneling and start debating the issues," Shivaun Raff said. Foundem is also asking for oversight — but sensible oversight. "Transparency can be its own oversight," Adam Raff told us, "Without transparency, you need some kind of official authority to come in and [sort things out]. With reasonable transparency, people can provide their own oversight." ®

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