Rivals fume as FTC clears Google of fiddling search results

Federal Trade Commission finds no evidence that Google unfairly manipulated search results

Stewart Mitchell
4 Jan 2013

Rivals have reacted with dismay to the US Federal Trade Commission's ruling that Google didn't manipulated search results to hurt competition.

The search giant had been facing censure over claims that it downgraded rival company results in search listings, but a 20-month-long probe into the market found no evidence that Google had hurt competition via search, although the company agreed to change some of its business practices to allay antitrust fears.

"Regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the commission," said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC.

"Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of US law."

Google’s ability to get away with these practices has often depended on its ability to confuse, obfuscate, and intimidate

The decision was met with derision by rivals, who had claimed that Google harmed their businesses by manipulating search results to promote the company's own products.

Microsoft said the commission had ignored evidence that it believed showed the search giant promoted its own interests. "Google has long said that it merely aims to offer customers the most relevant answer to their query, and the FTC accepted that view," the company complained.

"Yet we know that Google routinely and systematically heavily promotes its own services in search results. Is Google+ really more relevant than Facebook? Are Google’s travel results better than those offered by Expedia, Kayak and others? We also know that Google ranks shopping results (the most important category commercially) in part on the basis of how much advertisers pay to Google for placement."

Search confusion

Another search company – UK-based Foundem, the first to raise the issue with regulators – also called the ruling a missed opportunity, suggesting the FTC investigators had failed to understand the scale and technicalities of the issue.

"We are concerned that the FTC’s reluctance to litigate against these abusive practices may stem more from misconceptions about the mechanics and financial incentives underlying the abuse than from the constraints of US antitrust law," founder Shivaun Raff wrote in a letter to the US officials.

"In the familiar bricks-and-mortar world, Google’s anticompetitive behaviour would have been obvious to all. But, in the unfamiliar and seemingly impenetrable world of internet search, Google’s ability to get away with these practices has often depended on its ability to confuse, obfuscate, and intimidate."

Google welcomed the decision and claimed: "The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition."

Sanctions agreed

While the search neutrality claims were dismissed by the FTC, Google has agreed to change several working practices that officials suggest contorted competition, including action over patents and the way companies that advertise with Google can access their data.

“Google will meet its prior commitments to allow competitors access – on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms – to patents on critical standardised technologies needed to make popular devices such as smartphones, laptop and tablet computers, and gaming consoles," the FTC said.

Google also agreed not to seek sales bans of rival products amid patent disputes.

In a separate letter of commitment, "Google has agreed to give online advertisers more flexibility to simultaneously manage ad campaigns on Google’s AdWords platform and on rival ad platforms," the FTC said.

The FTC also said it had obtained a commitment from Google to "refrain from misappropriating online content from vertical websites that focus on specific categories such as shopping or travel for use in its own vertical offerings".

Although Google sees the ruling as a vindication, it still faces questions from EU regulators, who may yet take a harder line than their US counterparts.

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