48 Comments

Summary:

Google’s use of its homepage to advertise its own products and display pop-up birthday reminders for its Google+ network on its homepage may seem like just an annoyance, but each step the company takes toward promoting its own offerings raises more red flags for antitrust regulators.

Not that long ago, Google was known for its unwavering commitment to one shining principle: namely, that its homepage would always remain a pristine expanse of white, broken only by a simple search box and a kooky or amusing graphic. We’ve seen some breaches of that rule over the past couple of years, but in most cases they have been simple text links — nothing like the huge pop-up Nexus 7 ad the search company installed recently, or the birthday reminders that are now appearing for Google+ users. But while these may seem like trivial annoyances, they reinforce just how far the company has diverged from its original purpose, as do recent content acquisitions like the purchase of Frommer’s travel guides. And every step that Google takes down that road seems to raise a red flag for antitrust regulators and a growing legion of critics.

As Liz Gannes notes at All Things Digital, former Google executive Marissa Mayer was adamant in 2005 that there would never be “crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever.” Her comments came after the search giant signed a content deal with AOL, and the fear was that the banner-ad-crazy culture of the former portal would somehow infect Google. It seems obvious (as John Gruber at Daring Fireball points out) that her response was primarily about ads for other companies and products, rather than Google pushing its own products. But the outcome is the same — and if anything, it seems worse that Google is pimping its own offerings, because it tilts the playing field in the company’s favor.

Is Google putting its thumb on the scales?

That’s the underlying principle at stake, not whether or not the homepage has pop-up ads or birthday reminders on it — and it is the part of all this that could lead to even more problems for Google when it comes to the ongoing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into what it alleges is anti-competitive behavior. A key aspect of that case is whether Google favors its own products, and whether doing so is unfair to smaller competitors because of the company’s monopoly position in search and search-related advertising.

Since it is a corporation and not a public utility, it’s not surprising that Google would promote its own offerings in search results, whether it’s Google Maps or local results or any other aspect of its business. In many ways, the arguments made by “search neutrality” advocates — that Google should remain completely neutral in how and where it places results — are somewhat absurd. The whole point of a search engine is that it provides the best results for a query, and in order to do that it has to make decisions about the value its algorithm places on different sites, decisions that are to some extent always going to be subjective (law professor Eugene Volokh has even argued that search results are effectively a form of free speech).

But as Danny Sullivan of Marketing Land noted recently, this argument is becoming increasingly difficult for the company to maintain, as it acquires more and more businesses that compete directly with other content providers who are likely to show up in search results, and as it tries to expand its Google+ network to become a viable alternative to Twitter and Facebook (as my colleague Barb Darrow reports, the company said Wednesday its social network is also being integrated into its enterprise-level Google Apps offering).

Google wants to own information, not just organize it

So the acquisition of Frommer’s gets added to the acquisition of Zagat, and Google becomes a serious powerhouse when it comes to the business of travel-related reviews and recommendations. Is that a big business? It certainly is, and it’s also one where Google’s search and advertising market share is going to play a fairly critical role. How much preference will results from its own properties get when a user does a search for a restaurant or a hotel? We don’t know, and neither do antitrust regulators — and Google will never give them enough information to make a reasonable guess, because that would reveal too much about its algorithm.

In the same way, the addition of birthday reminder popups seems like a fairly trivial thing for the Google homepage, more of a nuisance than something worth getting upset about — except that the point of these reminders is to promote the use of Google’s Facebook-style network Google+, just as the earlier addition of a toolbar at the top of the search page was, and just as the search feature known as “Search Plus Your World” was when it launched earlier this year. For many, the latter move was one of the biggest betrayals of Google’s original promise that it would never bias its search results for any commercial reason.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph about modifications to its search results, Google executive Amit Singhal made some cryptic comments about Search Plus Your World that seemed to suggest the company was de-emphasizing those personalized results, but it’s not clear what the actual impact (if any) of his comments might be. If anything, Singhal’s remarks seemed more like an attempt to downplay the feature because it has raised concerns with a number of antitrust regulators — including those in the European Community, who are conducting their own investigation of the company’s behavior towards competitors.

Google’s original mandate was to “organize the world’s information,” but many of its recent moves seem designed to own the world’s information instead, or at least to control access to it. That may be in Google’s corporate interests, but is it in the interest of the average web searcher or consumer? As we’ve pointed out in the past, one of the main tests in an antitrust case is whether a company’s behavior distorts the market in a way that penalizes users (and the Federal Trade Commission has even broader latitude when it comes to unfair practices). The more Google expands its ownership of content and services, the harder it will be to defend against those kinds of accusations.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier

  1. I hope you do understand that Google “is the smaller” competitor in tablet space?

    Share
    1. Thanks, yes — I am aware of that. But the reality is that its market position in tablets is irrelevant, it’s the use of a search monopoly to give preference to its own products that matters.

      Share
      1. Who says they have a search monopoly? A monopoly is the complete control of a certain product, where they abuse the situation because of a lack of competition.

        Google is the best, and the most used, but in no way is it a monopoly. Don’t like the fact that they pimp their products? Use Yahoo. Use Bing… It’s easy. I like Google maps, google navigation, google search, gmail, google shopping, etc. I don’t feel as though I *have* to use Google to get information, because I don’t. It’s a personal preference. They have every right to advertise their own products however they want to. If companies feel they are being shortchanged in the deal, it’s easy for them… pull your ads from Google. Spend your ad dollars on Yahoo then.

        The fact of the matter is that Google owns the market because it’s the best. They can develop anything they want, and pimp it out til their hearts are content.

        Haha, I just attempted to post and couldn’t use my single signon Google account that every other content system accepts but this one. Haha, that’s hella funny, for real.

        I see negative comments about google all the time… and you know how those google haters found the blog or forum they were commenting on? Google.

        Share
  2. Dennis D. McDonald Wednesday, August 29, 2012

    I think “thumb on the scale” is a good summary of my own reaction. Here is more: https://plus.google.com/u/0/101692079149381476698/posts/cwohYrrJr7p

    Share
  3. Google doesn’t have a “search monopoly”. Which kind of renders your entire argument moot.

    Share
    1. Not in the US, nut in the UK and EU and some other countries around the world Google does have a monopoly.

      Share
      1. In the UK and EU: does google prevent users from accessing Bing or Yahoo or any other search engine? If so, please explain how that is possible. If not, please explain how google has a monopoly?

        Share
      2. @txpatriot It’s not about preventing users. Microsoft also didn’t prevent users from installing competing browsers on Windows and yet they were declared a monopoly, fined and had to accept several conditions.

        Chrome comes bundled on many PCs and even software you download these days and the default search engine on it is Google. Apparently according to Google it’s also the most used browser in the world now. Maybe it’s time for regulators to require a search engine ballot screen on it, like Microsoft had to do for browsers.

        Share
  4. The popup ad is not on any search pages, it is on the front page, and only visible before a search is performed. Why can’t they put anything there? They have only chosen not to do that in the past to keep it clean.

    Yahoo runs ads on their home page, and bing has a facebook like button on its home page. I don’t see the problem with running ads for anything on the home page, and even if google wants to run ads for their products on the results pages, they are effectively paying for those ads, as they are losing revenue from some other advertiser. As long as they say it’s an ad, what’s the problem?

    Share
    1. I agree that the home page is different from including Google products in search, but from a regulator’s point of view they don’t look all that different — both take advantage of Google’s monopoly position in search to give its products preferential treatment.

      Share
      1. Again, google does not have a search monopoly. They’re are many competitors.

        Share
      2. Hi John,

        Monopoly is not decided by how many competitors you have in the market place. It is decide by how much of the market Google current controls, above 75% or around that figure for it to be consider a monopoly, in the US they have about 65% of the search market. In the EU and and other markets they control 90%+ of the search market.

        Share
      3. Bing, Yahoo, Ask. Google doesnt have a monopoly. Theyre just the leader of their field. Thats like saying Apple has a monopoly of Tablets. They dont, they’re lust the leader of the pack.

        Share
      4. @ DevGal, um, Apple does have a monopoly on tablets or at least it thinks it does/should re. the lawsuit against (I believe Samsung) that has stopped the saleof their tablet in most of the EU. Just saying.

        Share
      5. @rememberingbob – Can you tell us why, from the regulator’s point of view, an ad on the Google homepage doesn’t look all that different from mixing their preferred links in the search result? Anyone who can think a little can see those are entirely two different things.

        Here’s something interesting: Forget about the home page. Google could display their own clearly marked ads in the ads section of the search results page (NOT as part of the search results themselves, mind you) and they would still be perfectly okay to do that.

        Worse comes to worst, Google could argue that the Nexus 7 is primarily a search device or another channel for Google Search, and oh, it just happens to have other tablet functionality, and so it is perfectly okay to advertise it on the search page.

        PS: For the record, I don’t like this behavior by Google either.

        Share
  5. Sites get penalties in rankings when they try to trick the search algorithims into thinking the page has the content being searched for. Or you’d get a page that looks like it was copy-pasted from a list of most popular searches, and nothing you were looking for.__And that birthday thing… I haven’t seen it pop up at all. I would deny the fact that it exists if I didn’t have a prompt for my birthday the one day, and if seeing birthday post spam suddenly go from non-existant to uncommon on G+.

    Amazon sells thousands of products. But since December I haven’t seen the front page ad NOT be the kindle fire.

    Share
    1. Nice comparison. I buy a lot from Amazon. They sell Galaxy Tabs, and a ton of other Android tablets, yet the Kindle Fire has been plastered on the top half of their page since launch.

      I have no problem with that.

      I’m sure some people will run around yelling MONOPOLY unfairly though.

      Share
    2. Amazon doesn’t have a 70%+ market share on all online sales.

      Share
  6. It’s their page. They can do what they want. Don’t like it? Use another search engine. Duh.

    I think the real subtext is some ppl are worried the Google tablet ads will hurt the Good and Great Apple. I’m not an Apple fanboy so I don’t mind the ads.

    Share
    1. Agreed. I love Google and will continue to use it… even though I hate the fact they put YouTube videos in their results… because they own YouTube.

      Should I file some FTC complaint against them though? No, because if I don’t like it, I’ll use Bing, or Yahoo…

      If Google bought up Ask, Bing, Google, and a few others… and actively stomped out competition, THEN they decided to quadruple their ad click prices, and abused their prowess over search in other ways to effectively hurt consumers and advertisers because they had a true monopoly… THEN, and ONLY THEN, would I consider them a monopoly.

      Share
  7. They built it, they own it, they can advertise on it. If anyone does not like it the can use another search engine. They are a public company after all, and they need to generate value for shareholders….

    Share
  8. google has done this before many times, its nothing new.

    Share
  9. it’s their domain and their product. I don’t understand the problem.

    Share
  10. Don’t like it, move on… there are other options…like Bing.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post