FTC Exonerates Google in Search Bias Investigation

Yesterday, after an investigation lasting nearly two years, the Federal Trade Commission in the United States has concluded that Google’s search results are fair and unbiased.

In a statement that could have been written by Google’s own PR department, FTC director Jon Liebowitz said that Google is “one of America’s great companies” and that the changes the search engine makes to its algorithms are primarily to “improve the user experience.”

Google didn’t get away entirely scot-free from the FTC investigation and is being forced to make some small concessions with regards to its mobile patent portfolio (courtesy of its acquisition of Motorola Mobility) and the export of AdWords data.

But in the area of search bias, Google is completely exonerated.

Needless to say, Google welcomed this news with barely veiled glee: “…we’re pleased that the FTC and the other authorities that have looked at Google’s business practices […] have concluded that we should be free to combine direct answers with web results. So we head into 2013 excited about our ability to innovate for the benefit of users everywhere.”

Some of Google’s rivals are less enthused about the FTC’s findings. Microsoft especially is somewhat incensed“Google often says that the antitrust offenses with which it has been charged cause no harm to consumers. Google is wrong about that. In this instance, for example, Google’s refusal deprives consumers who use competing platforms of a comparable experience in accessing content that is generally available on the Web, almost all of which is created by users rather than by Google itself.”

You can hardly blame Microsoft for feeling somewhat hard done by. In the 1990s the software company was nearly sued in to oblivion by the FTC for daring to bundle its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows operating system.

Microsoft’s defence at the time, that competing browsers were ‘just a download away’, is very similar to Google’s defence that rival services for travel, shopping, and flights are ‘just a click away’.

Yet Microsoft was forced to make extreme concessions to ward off the FTC’s antitrust concerns, whilst Google gets a pat on the back for ‘improving user experience’.

Commenting from a more neutral perspective Bloomberg’s editors seem to agree that Google got off too lightly, saying that the FTC “missed an opportunity to explore publicly one of the paramount questions of our day: Is Google abusing its role as gatekeeper to the digital economy?”

There’s no doubt that Google’s search dominance, especially in Europe, is harming businesses.

Here’s an example. Say you’ve started up a flight comparison site in the early 2000s, and you’ve worked hard to get airlines and travel companies on board so you can offer the best flight deals to your site’s users.

But, through developments that are entirely outside of your control, your business becomes increasingly untenable over the years. First users decide to start using Google almost exclusively to find stuff online, forcing you to maximise your visibility on the search engine.

Then Google decides to launch a rival flight comparison service straight on its SERPs. Even though you offer better deals, your traffic begins to dry up as Google takes the bulk of flight searches off your hands.

Because your user figures go down, you can’t negotiate competitive deals any more with airlines and travel companies, which has a negative impact on the quality of your flight comparison service, which in turn sends more users to Google’s service. You can see where this is going.

Bloomberg’s editorial sums it up nicely: “Ask yourself this simple question: Am I harmed when rival services, whether for product comparisons, hotel bookings, airfares, restaurant reviews or maps, go out of business because they can’t compete with Google? We suspect the answer is yes.”

The European Commission is set to deliver its own judgment later this month, and there are some signs that they will be less forgiving of Google’s practices. Here’s to hoping.

[Image credit: Mashable/Alex Wong/Getty Images]

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About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised SEO services to clients worldwide.