Why Google’s homepage antics are more serious than they appear

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