EU Antitrust Regulators Jump on Google’s Back

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google_recruiting_small.jpgADOTAS – After a getting a load of European privacy complaints courtesy of its Street View service, Google’s digital colonization of the old country continues to run into trouble with the natives. Following complaints from three vertical search engines, European Union antitrust regulators are scrutinizing whether Google purposefully lowered rival service engines’ rankings in its unpaid search results and giving preferred treatment

If that wasn’t bad enough, the European Commission also is looking into charges that Google prevented pubs signed up with AdSense from accepting ads from search competitors, and whether it restricted outside use of campaign data from its ad platform.

In the Commission’s own words:

“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. The Commission will also look into allegations that Google lowered the ‘Quality Score’ for sponsored links of competing vertical search services. The Quality Score is one of the factors that determine the price paid to Google by advertisers.

“The Commission’s probe will additionally focus on allegations that Google imposes exclusivity obligations on advertising partners, preventing them from placing certain types of competing ads on their web sites, as well as on computer and software vendors, with the aim of shutting out competing search tools. Finally, it will investigate suspected restrictions on the portability of online advertising campaign data to competing online advertising platforms.”

Price-comparison sites Ciao (powered by Microsoft’s Bing) and UK-based Foundem along with French legal search engine Ejustice.fr filed an antitrust complaint against Google in February. Google has repeatedly denied the allegations, though interestingly an anonymous source told TechCrunch that Google has an obligation to shut out “spammy links from lame ‘shopping’ search engines.”

However, Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand makes the seemingly obvious point that people don’t go to search engines to go to other search engines. “Over time, it has made more sense for search engines like Google — or Bing for that matter — to provide a better search experience by creating vertical search engines and blending them into regular search results,” he writes. “It’s their job. If they are not allowed to do this, they cannot serve their users well.”

So such monopoly allegations may be bold, but difficult to prove. There seems to be a whiff of smaller players using a convoluted legal system to harangue the dominant company in the space.

While it may be a pain in Google’s neck to deal with the investigation, getting publicly cleared of such accusations may be a boon to its business in general — pretty much an EU stamp of approval. As David Wood, legal counsel for European trade organization Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (ICOMP), puts it, “A thorough investigation is necessary to determine the workings of Google’s black box.”

Of course, if Google is guilty of these practices… that’s quite a credibility hit. Google’s dominant position is supposed to be due to its superior technology, not because it kicks down the little guys.

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