The below is an essay about Google’s anticompetitive practices in search that I wrote last semester for a computer science class. Given the recent news about Google’s actions in taking payment for better placement in Google ‘Hotel Finder’ and ‘Flight Search’ results, I felt it important to highlight some of Google’s other recent anticompetitive practices, as well as compare how Google’s current practices and ideologies stack up against those of the Google of yester-year.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Google. I use them for search and email everyday, and I have an Android-powered smartphone. But I think it is important that we look long and hard at what Google’s been up to recently, and, if we find that Google is turning too “evil,” we help push the company back towards the right path. Obviously only one side of the argument is presented here, but I think its a compelling one.
Fifteen years ago, google was just a number. A number so large, in fact, that no one ever used it. Nothing of such gargantuan size existed in the real world, so google remained an abstract concept. It was never used in math. It was never used in chemistry. It was never used in economics. It was never used, in the real world, by anyone, for anything. If google had disappeared from the Earth, never to be seen again, life would have gone on just as it had before, uninterrupted.
Fast forward to today. Google is no longer just an abstract number, but rather the key interface to our knowledge base, our society, and even our own identity. Anyone with a computer interacts with Google on a daily basis. We use it for answering questions, sending emails, finding directions, editing documents, watching videos, maintaining schedules, and even translating languages. Google is, and for the foreseeable future will be, our primary, trusted, interface to information.
Because of this, if there’s one company that the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility,” applies to, it’s Google. With the amount of power Google has over people’s access to information, what would happen if Google suddenly betrayed our trust, and put its preferences for search results over users’ preferences? What if Google decided to display certain websites more prominently than the websites most relevant and useful to users’ searches? What if Google simply stopped displaying websites in search results that it felt were competing with it’s own products? Our society’s access to the best and most pertinent information would be diminished, and we wouldn’t even know it, because we trust Google to provide the best results. Its a good thing that Google is impartial in its search results, or else searching Google could become equivalent to asking a Nissan salesman for information on cars, or even Google’s Android marketers for information on mobile phones, without the knowledge that these information sources are biased.
Except that Google is not impartial anymore. It has abandoned the core mantra of ‘users over profits’ on which the company was built and which allowed Google to rise to such epic ubiquity. In its place are search results that favor Google’s own services over those most useful and relevant to users. The free and open access to information we as Google users expect from Google is being constricted, as are the many businesses that compete with any of the Google services favored by Google’s search results. Google is operating a monopoly, and its anticompetitive business practices must be regulated.
The Bullying of Yelp
One can clearly see Google’s anticompetitive practices by following its dealings with Yelp over recent years. Yelp, which allows consumers to find businesses in their area, competes closely with the Google service ‘Google Local.’ From 2005 to 2007, Google licensed Yelp’s content to be used by Google Local, but in 2010 Google “began incorporating the content that it indexed from its competitors into Google Local without permission” (6). You see, in order for a site’s pages to appear in Google’s search results, the site must let Google “see” the content on every page they want to appear in search results, so that Google can properly place the page. So, Yelp, like most sites, let Google see all of its content. But in addition to using Yelp’s content to learn where to place Yelp in search results, Google also directly incorporated Yelp’s content into its own competing product, Google Local, without Yelp’s permission. While Google had previously shown it knew it needed a license to use Yelp’s content, “it was now using [the content] without permission to prop up its own, less effective product” (6). When Yelp protested Google’s actions, Google “informed [Yelp] that it would cease the practice only if [Yelp] agreed to be removed from Google’s web search” (6). On the surface, this might seem like a valid solution. As one site specializing in “local search expertise” notes, all Yelp has to do to stop Google from getting its content is change a file on yelp.com to “disallow Googlebot from crawling” its site and seeing its content, since “no one in [Google’s headquarters in] Mountain View is forcing Yelp” to let Google see its pages (9). But Yelp, like most sites, receives a large amount of its traffic from the Google search engine, and so cannot afford to not show up in Google’s search results. Basically, because of “Google’s dominant position in the [search] market,” Yelp would have immediately lost a large portion of its traffic if Google stopped showing its pages. Yelp had no choice but to play by Google’s rules, and continue giving Google access to its content (6). But the FTC ruled Google’s actions as anticompetitive, and told Google to “cease misappropriating content from its competitors” (6). While Google publicly agreed, a week later, Google Local “was continuing to use content from services like Yelp to power its own local business search product,” against the FTC’s wishes (6).
In addition to the above monopolistic practices, Yelp has had additional trouble competing with Google Local because Google’s search results specifically place Google Local “in the most prominent position” on the search results page, “regardless of whether the [Google search] algorithm has actually determined that [Google Local] has the most relevant content” (6). Even if Yelp results are more relevant or useful to users, Google will still show the Google Local results at the top of search results, where the most relevant results usually go. In this way Google is “steering users toward its own products” rather than towards the best sources of information (8). As Jeremy Stoppelman, cofounder and CEO of Yelp, notes, “when Google artificially promotes its own properties regardless of merit,” Google is “not helping consumers get to the best information” but is rather just using its dominant position to “generat[e] more revenue” (6). In fact, Google’s practices have been so unfair that Stoppelman wonders “if [he] would have been able to start Yelp today given Google’s recent actions” (6).
Anticompetitive Practices in Search
Its hard to argue the above practices aren’t anticompetitive, but if its just local search services being affected, then its not so bad right? Problem is, local search is just the tip of the iceberg of unethical practices currently employed by Google. For example, a group of Facebook and Twitter employees recently published a website dedicated to highlighting Google’s unfair search bias towards its own social networking service, Google+, over more popular and widely used social networking services like Twitter or Facebook (7). As the website notes, when one searches ‘cooking’ on the Internet, Google displays renowned chef Jamie Oliver as a relevant search result. But “rather than linking to Jamie’s Twitter profile, which is updated daily, Google links to [Jamie’s] Google+ profile, which was last updated nearly two months ago” (7). The website also describes how this is a purposeful decision made by Google, shown by the fact that if ones searches Google for ‘Jamie Oliver’ directly, “his Twitter profile is the first social result that appears,” and his Google+ profile “doesn’t even appear on the first page of results” because it is not useful or relevant to users (7). What this shows is that Google purposefully promotes Google+ over more relevant social results in some searches, even though the Google search algorithm knows these Google+ results are less relevant than those from Twitter or Facebook. And just like in the Yelp case, Google displays these Google+ results, regardless of relevance, in a very prominent position on the search results page.
These are not ‘slip-ups’ or independent events. They are part of Google’s current strategy to use its monopoly in search to dominate other industries by promoting its own services in “ways that suggest to consumers that they are natural search results, rather than links to Google sites in which Google has a direct economic interest” (8). In fact, the Fair Search Coalition recently sent a 44-page paper to all 50 U.S. Attorney Generals, entitled “Google’s Transformation From Gateway To Gatekeeper: How Google’s Exclusionary And Anticompetitive Conduct Restricts Innovation And Deceives Consumers,” which details many ways in which Google is misusing consumer trust in advertising, display, search, and mobile, including by “manipulating its search algorithm to exclude or penalize competing sites, effectively ‘disappearing’ them from the Internet” and “stealing content developed by other websites…without permission and displaying that content on its own pages, sometimes even without attribution” (8). As Stoppelman noted in his 2011 submission to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition, Policy, and Consumer Rights, “allowing a search engine with monopoly market share to exploit and extend its dominance hampers entrepreneurial activity,” because “when one company controls the market, it ultimately controls consumer choice” (6). Stoppelman’s words could not be clearer. It is imperative that Google become a neutral party in search, for the sake of both businesses and consumers.
The Hypocrisy of a Search Giant
Competitors aside, even Google’s founders would say Google is being anticompetitive if they stood by the standards established when they started the company. In 1998, the same year Google was incorporated, it’s founders published a paper advocating against “advertising funded search engines” – those that gain a profit by advertising external companies or the search engine company itself – because they are “inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers” (3). While Google eventually went on to use advertising as its primary mode of revenue, it’s founders tried to ensure that Google would always put search neutrality ahead of profits by incorporating certain beliefs into Google’s official corporate philosophy right from the beginning. Still written in the web giant’s manifest today, the “core principles that drive [Google’s] actions” are always putting the user first, written as “focus on the user and all else will follow,” and being socially and ethically responsible, written as “you can make money without doing evil” (1). In fact, when Google’s 23rd hire, senior engineer Paul Buchheit came up with the “don’t be evil” phrase (a shortened version of the “you can make money without doing evil” mantra) as “a bit of a jab at a lot of other companies, especially [Google’s] competitors” who were “exploiting the[ir] users,” it was quickly written down on every white board used throughout the company, so every employee would always remember that Google was there to serve its users, not the other way around (2).
Google’s founders believed that by instilling a “Don’t be evil” culture, the corporation would be able to establish a baseline for honest decision-making that disassociates Google from any cheating and corner-cutting. This, the founders believed, would enhance the image, trust, and usefulness of the corporation in the eyes of its users (3). And this philosophy has served Google very well – until recently when they stopped abiding by it. In order to make sure searches were as relevant and accurate as possible, from its inception Google refused to sell ad placement in its search results, and rather only showed ads on the side of the page, under an ‘Ads by Google’ header (1). Similarly, Google wouldn’t “allow people to pay for a higher ranking” in the search results, keeping results as accurate and unbiased as possible (1). By employing these user-over-profits policies, Google was able to provide the most useful, most accurate, and most relevant search results. For these reasons, by 2004, Google served more than 84% of all search requests on the Internet (4), and today represents a 66% market share of all Internet search – with its closest search competitor at only 15% market share (5).
But that was then. Google used ethical search results to gain users’ trust, and now that it has that trust, it is abusing it. Google’s recent operations are in clear violation of its own core mantras – with current CEO Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, in clear violation of his own ethical standards. Yes, Google may not sell ad placement in its search results, or allow people to pay for a higher ranking in search results, but as discussed above, it does present its own services in response to searches in prominent positions at the top of search results – regardless of their relevance or usefulness as determined by the Google search algorithm. So while Google does not allow any other companies to manipulate the Google search results to their favor, Google is allowing its own services to manipulate the search results to their favor – a clear monopolistic practice, and an especially dangerous one when Google is so widely trusted by users and its services extend to so many business segments.
Google’s founders had a dream – to create a search engine that provided the best results and put user’s interests over those of shareholders. And Google built an empire on that dream. But recent anticompetitive practices by Google, including its prioritization of search results of Google Local over Yelp and Google+ over Facebook and Twitter, break both Google’s core mantra as well as US law. Google must be held accountable to present the most relevant search results over those results which benefit its own services, in order to keep our access to information, and other businesses’ ability to compete, safe. The search for search neutrality must continue.
- “Corporate Information – Company Overview”. Google. http://www.google.com/corporate/
- Livingston, Jessica (2007). Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. Apress Publishing.
- Brin, Sergey; Page, Lawrence. “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”. Stanford InfoLab. http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html
- “Can Google Go Glossy?”. Businessweek. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_50/b3963130.htm. (2005).
- “comScore Releases December 2011 U.S. Search Engine Rankings”. ComScore.com. http://www.comscore.com/Insights/Press_Releases/2012/1/comScore_Releases_December_2011_U.S._Search_Engine_Rankings
- “The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?” Stoppelman, Jeremy. http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/pdf/11-9-21StoppelmanTestimony.pdf
- “Focus on the User”. FocusOnTheUser.com. http://www.focusontheuser.com
- “Google’s Transformation From Gateway To Gatekeeper: How Google’s Exclusionary And Anticompetitive Conduct Restricts Innovation And Deceives Consumers.” The Fair Search Coalition. http://www.fairsearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Googles-Transformation-from-Gateway-to-Gatekeeper.pdf
- “Yelp vs Google in Congress”. MIHMORANDUM. 11/21/2011. http://www.davidmihm.com/blog/google/yelp-vs-google-congress/