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Google policy wonk patronises Brits over EU search biz probe

Downgrading rivals? Whetstone: 'I just don't think it's really true'

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Google repeatedly batted away questions about whether it favours its search result services over those of its rivals in Europe, during a frustrating exchange on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning.

The ad giant's public policy veep, Rachel Whetstone, who is the wife of Steve Hilton - the brains behind Prime Minister David Cameron's doomed Big Society branding - did a good job of patronising Brits over their cornflakes as she insisted that Google was simply trying to offer the "best results" to its users.

The chief of German publishing giant Axel Springer, Mathias Döpfner, had claimed to Today that Google was "not playing fair".

"A company of that market domination - which you have to call it a quasi-monopoly or a monopoly - has to accept certain rules of fairness and transparency," he said.

"Google is, in a very subjective manner, downgrading products of their competitors and upgrading their own products and services without disclosing that. This is not fair search, and this is not in the interest of the consumer, and this is reducing competition," Döpfner argued.

He claimed that new search services had "no chance to prosper" because of Google's alleged behaviour and said the company's command of online traffic was a "concrete threat" to other businesses operating in Europe, where Mountain View dominants the search market.

Döpfner - like many of the rivals who have formally complained about Google's biz practices to the competition wing of the European Commission – said that the planned deal "makes things worse" for competitors. The executive body of the European Union is reportedly close to a settlement with the multinational that stops far short of sanctions or any admittance of wrongdoing.

He said that Google can continue to "downgrade" rival products, but that it had to provide an ad window on top of its website where its struggling competitors could buy advertising space.

"This is a very strange proposal," he argued. "I would call that protection money, I mean it is basically the business principle of the Mafia. You say 'either you pay or we shoot you'. I think that is not the solution for the problem."

Google public policy veep: Us? Like the Mafia? Don't be silly

But Whetstone rejected that claim. When asked if Google was downgrading competing services to benefit its own search biz, she told the BBC: "I just don't think it's really true."

"We're ranking results so somebody has to come top and somebody has to not come top - that's the nature of a rank," she said.

Whetstone used weather search queries as an example. "You want to see a 10-day weather forecast, you don't want a list of links where you have to go and type the information in again."

The Google veep was pressed again on whether it was listing its own services first.

"You should expect that we are trying to give you the best results," Whetstone said.

"I think if it's just the weather, it's the weather, it's not particularly our product or anyone else's product. It's a fact."

The Google veep then faced the same question, slightly re-framed: do Google search terms get a higher billing?

"It will depend on the query you are typing in," she admitted.

The Beeb's Sarah Montague then asked: "If a Google service has fewer visits than that of a competitor, it will rank higher, will it [not]?"

Whetstone hit back: "No, not necessarily, and the reality is that traffic can't be the only arbiter. Traffic is a proxy for popularity and popularity can be important."

The Google veep added, by way of example, that news results just for traffic would mean that the Daily Mail newspaper would always rank above the Financial Times, even though the FT might have more relevant news articles on a given topic.

She was then asked again if Google does indeed rank its results and services above those of its search enemies.

"Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. It depends, it entirely depends. What we're trying to do is provide the most relevant results for users in a very competitive market where if we don't continue to provide the best results for users, people will go and find their information somewhere else," Whetstone said.

When asked specifically about Döpfner's "Mafia protection money" claim and whether Google's tactics were unfair, Whetstone hit back:

"Well, it's - again - not quite true," she claimed.

The European Commission [has] gone through a five-year investigation. We've seen commissioner [Joaquin] Almunia and his staff go through every single aspect of the business and they asked us to make some changes, requested that we did, and we are making those changes.

One of the reasons that we think that actually an auction-based approach is the right way to do this, is because auctions actually are good at determining how much people want to be involved and they also mean that the people who are providing us with the information have the incentive to keep the information up-to-date.

We also, of course, have organic search results where people are not paying, but we have found auctions are an incredibly good way to get people good results.

Finally, that now dog-eared question that journalists never fail to ask the ad giant was wheeled out one more time. Is Google's "Don't be evil" promise still true?

"Yes - I think absolutely, that's the way our founders think about the company," Whetstone said.

"Actually, 'don't be evil' started with 'don't let money affect your search rankings' and in our organic results we absolutely are focused on what are the best results. I understand some of the points [Axel] Springer are making, but actually if you go and dig and you look at them, you find that they are not borne out by the facts." ®

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