Google favours ‘in-house’ search results
April 9, 2013 6:18 pm

By Alex Barker in Brussels and Bede McCarthy in London

Google faces having to offer users in Europe more choice of other specialised search engines after Brussels investigators found its results were favouring its in-house services to the detriment of consumers.

One of the European Commission’s primary concerns, according to officials involved, is the visibility in search results of rival so-called “vertical search” services – in areas such as maps, finance or weather – that may provide more relevant results to a query.

This specific finding indicates that alongside widely expected concessions to more clearly label Google’s own services, the US group will also need to offer solutions that give more prominence to rival specialist search services and consumers clearer alternatives.

Google is this week submitting its final offer of concessions to the Commission, which aim to head off formal antitrust charges and a hefty fine. This is the first time Google has bowed to regulatory pressure over its search business but rivals including Microsoft fear the deal will still let Google off the hook.

The specific details of the concessions package remain unclear. But Joaquin Almunia, the EU’s competition chief, has hinted that the settlement will go beyond simply changing the labelling of Google services.

Mr Almunia told the New York Times there should be a “real choice” for users. “Maybe we will ask Google to signal what are the relevant options, alternative options, in the way they present the results,” he said.

According to people involved, the EU investigation running since November 2010 identified two main areas of concern in Google’s search practices and favourable treatment of its own services – while dismissing a host of other allegations made by complainants, including the demotion of rival services.

The first relates to the lack of a clear distinction between a promoted link and the normal result of the search engine. Investigators argued this left some consumers less able to make an informed choice.

The second concern regards Google promoting its own service and thereby making rival specialist results harder to find and less visible, even when they are most relevant for the consumer.

“Google is dominant in web search and therefore an important source of traffic for competing specialised search services,” said a Commission spokesperson.

“These services depend on access to traffic. We are worried that the diversion of traffic could reduce choices to invest and innovate in specialised search, which could in the end reduce the quality and choice of services available to users.”

The EU’s stance contrasts with the US Federal Trade Commission, which gave the all-clear to Google’s search engine. But it is still likely to bitterly disappoint Expedia, Microsoft and TripAdvisor, who complain Google is using delaying tactics to further entrench its dominance.

Some Google rivals this week submitted a fresh complaint over the prominence of its own services in the Android mobile operating system – a separate Commission investigation that will remain open even after the settlement over the search business.

Fairsearch, an alliance that includes Microsoft, Nokia and Oracle, has filed a complaint with the European Commission accusing Google of using “deceptive conduct to lock out competition in mobile”.

According to the complaint, Google’s open-source Android software is provided free to manufacturers on the condition they give a suite of Google services – beyond its maps and e-mail – prominence by default. Fairsearch counsel Thomas Vinje said Google was using the software as a “trojan horse to deceive partners, monopolise the marketplace and control consumer data”.

A Google spokesman said the company continued “to work co-operatively with the European Commission”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.


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