Is adding Google+ to search a red flag for regulators?

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Updated: Google launched a significant overhaul to its search results on Tuesday, one the company called “Search plus Your World.” As we described in a post on the news, the new features fully integrate Google+ profiles, photos, comments and other content into Google’s main search — something the company clearly thinks is an improvement. But not everyone agrees: Twitter, for example, released a statement saying it is concerned that the move will give content from Google’s own social network unfair prominence, and Google’s former legal counsel described the launch of new social features as “a bad day for the Internet.” The search giant may have just given antitrust regulators even more ammunition to use against it.

Google’s blog post extols the benefits of the new personalized search results, saying the move transforms what used to be just a search engine that ranked links between web pages into “a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships.” But while the Google announcement is called “search plus your world,” the only world that is being promoted in search results at the moment is the one that exists on the company’s own social network — Google+. And that clearly has Twitter bristling about a conflict of interest. In an emailed statement, Twitter said of the move:

For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet. Often, they want to know more about world events and breaking news. Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic.

As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results. We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.

Twitter suggests Google is promoting its own network unfairly

The implication is clear: that Google, as the world’s dominant search engine, is using its market position to promote its own social network at the expense of other networks such as Twitter, and that this isn’t just anti-competitive, but bad for the internet — and for web users, publishers and the news industry as a whole. That kind of complaint is virtually tailor-made to appeal to antitrust regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and/or the Justice Department, who are already investigating the search company for what critics say is abuse of its market dominance and promotion of its own products.

While many — including us — have argued that an antitrust investigation into Google is a mistake, in part because such investigations rarely have any salutary effect on the market they are trying to regulate, this kind of promotion of results from its own social network is going to be like a red flag to the antitrust bulls. As search expert Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land suggests, it would be a lot more palatable if Google was also showing results from other social networks (and the launch of these features may well be an attempt to pressure Twitter and Facebook to provide that data).

In a tweet, Alex Macgillivray — an open-web advocate who was formerly Google’s general counsel a senior lawyer at Google, and now holds the same position at Twitter — suggested that some members of Google’s own staff would likely be disappointed at how search results are being “warped” by the new changes, and that the move was a “bad day for the Internet.” Macgillivray also linked to a post from John Battelle (who wrote a book about Google) in which Battelle said that the new direction the search company was taking “sucks for the web.”

Google may have just turned up the heat in Washington

For its part, Google said that it would love to include more results from other social networks and sources in its search results, but is prevented from doing so because neither Facebook nor Twitter will allow the search giant to access their data. Facebook and Google have had a contentious relationship around the sharing of information for some time — one that culminated in a back-and-forth chess game over the downloading of Facebook contact info last year — and Twitter had an arrangement with Google to share real-time content from the network, but that deal ended last year.

Neither side has said why the arrangement with Twitter came to an end (sources say the company wanted a lot more money in return for its data), but today’s note about unfair competition suggests the two won’t be working together any time soon — and the odds of Facebook suddenly wanting to make its data available seem equally remote. But as others have pointed out, Google is being somewhat disingenuous when it says it can’t get information from Twitter, since all tweets and profile info (unless explicitly hidden by a user) is available to be crawled and indexed by anyone, including Google.

To make the new offering even more contentious from the point of view of a regulator, Google’s new personalized search features are switched on by default. While there is a switch that allows a user to easily turn them off, such “opt in by default” measures have gotten Facebook in hot water with regulators before. That and the perception that Google is trying to have its cake and eat it too could make things even hotter for the company in Washington, where the antitrust fires have already been lit.

Update: In a response on Google+, the search engine company said: “We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer (http://goo.gl/chKwi) and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions.” The reference to “rel=nofollow” means that Google’s search algorithm ignores any links appearing in tweets, which means that the search engine cannot fully index a user’s Twitter stream, as explained here.

Google’s statement appears to be the first time that it has specifically referred to Twitter not renewing the real-time information sharing agreement — previous statements simply said that the deal “expired.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and

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