Google To EU: You Know, No One Really Uses Our Vertical Search Products

from the fine-lines dept

As was widely expected yesterday, the EU has officially come out with its “Statement of Objections” to Google practices that are at the heart of its antitrust complaint. They are almost entirely focused on the fact that Google promotes its own shopping search product at the expense of competitors. From the announcement:

  • Google systematically positions and prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits. This conduct started in 2008.
  • Google does not apply to its own comparison shopping service the system of penalties, which it applies to other comparison shopping services on the basis of defined parameters, and which can lead to the lowering of the rank in which they appear in Google’s general search results pages.
  • Froogle, Google’s first comparison shopping service, did not benefit from any favourable treatment, and performed poorly.
  • As a result of Google’s systematic favouring of its subsequent comparison shopping services “Google Product Search” and “Google Shopping”, both experienced higher rates of growth, to the detriment of rival comparison shopping services.
  • Google’s conduct has a negative impact on consumers and innovation. It means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google’s product.

This somewhat echoes the FTC’s analysis of Google’s playing with shopping search — but the FTC also noted that the end results actually seemed to be good for consumers (something the EU appears to be less concerned with). Here was the FTC’s conclusion on the same issue:

Indeed, the evidence paints a complex portrait of a company working toward an overall goal of maintaining its market share by providing the best user experience, while simultaneously engaging in tactics that resulted in harm to many vertical competitors, and likely helped to entrench Google’s monopoly power over search and search advertising. The determination that Google’s conduct is anticompetitive, and deserving of condemnation, would require an extensive balancing of these factors, a task that courts have been unwilling- in similar circumstances – to perform under Section 2. Thus, although it is a close question, Staff does not recommend that the Commission move forward on this cause of action.

In short, it is clear that Google experimented with ways to improve its own shopping search performance, but it’s hard to see how some of the EU’s complaints make that much sense. What business is required to promote it competitors?

Either way, Google is now in the somewhat awkward position of pointing out that its own vertical search products both are good enough to deserve the treatment Google gave them, yet bad enough that no one actually uses them. Thus it has put out a somewhat hilarious blog post that talks about how little people actually use Google’s vertical search products while also highlighting how many competitors there are. Here, for example, is the chart it shows for shopping sites in Germany:

It’s pretty clear what point Google is trying to make there, though it seems likely that the EU Commission will quickly argue that this chart is actually unrelated to the point that it is making — that Google may be somehow “unfairly” leveraging its dominant position in general search, to push its vertical shopping search on users. The real question, is whether or not that’s harming end users in any way. That’s the part that seems tough to support. There do appear to be many other options for searching. And, personally, as someone who regularly uses Google (and other search engines) for a variety of searching needs, I can say that I never use it for product/shopping search, whether or not it promotes it in its search results, because I automatically default to other specialized sites for those kinds of searches. I’m at a loss as to how Google promoting its own shopping search does any harm to me in those situations. It’s just another competitor (and to me, not a very good one).

As we noted a few months ago, based on a tool that Yelp and TripAdvisor put together, there are arguments to be made that Google could do a better job with how it handles vertical search results, using its search algorithm to pull in results from others — but it’s difficult to see why anyone should want government bureaucrats determining how to build search engine results.

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Comments on “Google To EU: You Know, No One Really Uses Our Vertical Search Products”

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34 Comments
jakerome (profile) says:

The key here is consumers benefit because Google shows results from their vertical search products, reducing the need to visit any specialized search engine, be it from Google or a competitor.

A Modest Proposal would be for Google to do some A/B testing while they are still allowed to operate their own search engine. In Bucket A, Google. In Bucket B, the version of Google that the EU & its corporate backers have promoted– no product search results, no map on the results page, no dictionary definitions, no calculators, etc.

See which one harms consumers more.

Violynne (profile) says:

And, personally, as someone who regularly uses Google (and other search engines) for a variety of searching needs, I can say that I never use it for product/shopping search…
What the hell?

I can’t even use any search engine without getting bombarded with product/shopping results on general search.

Perhaps both the EU and FTC should go after these companies and start forcing a split on search results: general and product/sales/shopping.

This would eliminate a majority of problems, I believe.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The issues for Google is an industry-wide problem of having too many money-earning companies under the same umbrella as the search. Getting synergy effects by scewing results on the search engine to make a dime on the dollar is pretty problematic if you have a “reasonable expectation” of the results being “relevant and unbiased”.

Then we can discuss if you can reasonably expect relevant and unbiased information from a profit seeking entity, but morally there are arguments for regulation as long as it isn’t relativistic like in an anti-trust case.

In the anti-trust department, the result of the praxis will inevitably have a negative effect on competing services even though the effect may be insignificant, but as I started by stating, this is merely a symptom of a much older industry-wide disease.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Getting synergy effects by scewing results on the search engine to make a dime on the dollar is pretty problematic if you have a “reasonable expectation” of the results being “relevant and unbiased”.

I agree that could be troublesome, what I don’t agree with is government interference to try and “fix” it. That’s something the market will correct on it’s own. If Google’s search results keep pointing me to only Google products, I would simply choose another search engine. Google has to maintain their “reasonable expectation of the results being relevant and unbiased” in order to maintain their largest resource, which is eyeballs on ads.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I do not have the same trust in “the market” as you. I know people who do not understand that there are alternatives to Google and most people do not know what they are. How do you find a relevant alternative to Google if Google is manipulating its results to avoid you getting to a competitors site?

Is Yahoo or Bing better than Google? They are Microsoft-owned and generally biased in that direction. Furthermore, their side-services are even worse than Googles.

The rest are derivatives or unknown to the broader public. I use Duckduckgo, but that is relatively unknown to most people.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

How do you find a relevant alternative to Google if Google is manipulating its results to avoid you getting to a competitors site?

Well, congrats, you actually got me to do something that I haven’t for… I don’t know how long, I actually used Google to search for something.

Anyway, using Google to search for ‘Search engines’, here at the top 10 results:

1. Bing (search engine)
2. DuckDuckGo (search engine)
3. The wikipedia page for ‘Web search engine’.
4. Dogpile (search engine)
5. Ixquick (search engine)
6. Top 15 most populat search engines (Ebismba article)
7. Entireweb (search engine)
8. ‘Web search engines’ (article of some sort I’m guessing)
9. ‘The terrifying search engine that finds internet…’ (Forbes article)
10. ‘Ducking Google in search engines’ (Washington Post article)

If the claim is that they are intentionally modifying their results to keep people from finding alternative search engines, then this simple test would seem to put that particular idea to bed. Just because a good number of people don’t know about or use other search engines, is not Google’s fault, and they don’t really seem to be doing anything to hide the alternatives.

Anonymous Coward says:

Masnick can't see it! Therefore no one should worry about SPY AGENCY.

This puff piece is mere tacit appeal to authority: “Don’t worry, I’ve looked into it. NO PROBLEMS.”

Google is just commercial front for the NSA. Snowden says gives NSA “direct access”.

This multi-national tracks everyone using the internet in as much detail as can.

Here’s a link to a writer with sense:

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/surveillance-valley-why-google-eager-align-itself-americas-military-industrial

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Masnick can't see it! Therefore no one should worry about SPY AGENCY.

“Here’s a link to a writer with sense”

Since it’s you, I will presume it’s no such thing and is on par with the Lowry/Register (commenting disabled to avoid corrections because the resident troll wrote them)/etc links usually provided. I’ll not furnish them with a click until I get some context for the supposed quality other than “this guy agrees with my predisposed assumptions”.

You’re free to actually discuss what you think are the salient points, if you can do so without reducing yourself to strawmen, shrill personal attacks and farmyard noises, though.

DigDug says:

EU Proves yet again, that they are galactic-ally stupid.

Google does not have a Monopoly on search and advertising.

Let me repeat that sentence.

Google does NOT have a monopoly on search and advertising.

What the criminally stupid idiots in charge of the EU don’t understand is that the only way Google has any power whatsoever in search and advertising is because THE PEOPLE want them to have it.

If 90% of the EU searches are handled by Google, that isn’t because Google is holding a gun to their heads saying use me, use me. Google handles 90% of the EU searches because the people in the EU chose to use Google 90% of the time.

So all of you simpering twits that are trying to attack Google are really doing is attacking the choices made by your constituents.

Do you understand that at all?

Google only has more users using them for search because more people TRUST Google than any other search engine.

Google only has more advertising because more users trust Google for their results, so they see more advertisements through Google.

More web sites use Google for ad based revenue because more people CHOOSE Google than any other search engine.

I know it’s hard for you simpletons to think, what with one of your 2 brain cells misfiring on the failing search industry wannabe’s Kool-Aid, but get it through your thick skulls.

You’re messing with the choices that your people made.
If you make it so that your constituents can’t do what they want to do, then you’re messing with your political futures.

Wake the hell up, smell what you’re shoveling, step back, and throw all that made up horse shit back on the incompetent competitors who were trying to feed it to you, claiming it was caviar and prime rib.

Dingledore the Flabberghaster says:

It is possible that it’s different in the US to here in Europe, but I do know a lot of people that use Google as a price comparison site. At the same time, there seems to be fewer and fewer effective alternatives in the UK market. If that lack of alternatives is down to Google, it’s disappointing because the quality of results from Google dropped substantially after Google moved to primarily sponsored results in Google Shopping. And I think it’s one thing for selling partners to have priority in the Shopping tab, but for those products to also have an advantage in the main Search section could easily be seen to be intentionally misleading.

Google is a massively recognised and trusted brand – dwarfing pretty much all others. Rightly or wrongly, that means that Google has a massive influence on where people buy things. And if better places for buying things aren’t coming to the top of the results – as most Google users would expect they would – then that is detrimental to the users. It could also, conceivably, put smaller outlets out of business.

To make an extreme comparison, if teacher kept telling students that 2 + 2 = 5, a good number would ultimately believe them. Yes it’s avoidable, and you can easily say that stupid people get what they deserve, but Google is in a position of trust for internet searching.

So I don’t know what I think about this whole thing. I think Google aren’t always clear in highlighting that they’re not really a price comparison site – more of a broker with a wide range of clients. But I don’t have problems with Google pushing their own products over others – especially when they’re good products. I also don’t like the language coming out of the EU, which seems to be anti English speaking.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Usually, they use an actual price comparison site”

Two problems with that. One, those sites usually only cover a certain number of pre-determined sites. Newer sites, smaller sites, or sites that have requested to be left out are not included.

The second, perhaps more relevant here, is that they usually only cover one country. Despite the best efforts of the **AA cartels to try and stop this with digital products, the EU is still an open free market, where citizens are allowed to trade across borders. Quite often, a product will be significantly cheaper in another EU country. If this is due to tax, you run the risk of a customs bill on delivery, but for many smaller items, you can save a huge amount of money by importing. It’s also not uncommon to import from other parts of the world (although they may have more restrictions/charges than EU product), and Google is often the best way to compare current prices across multiple countries.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“if better places for buying things aren’t coming to the top of the results”

Which of course isn’t the point of the complaint. The complaint is that there is a sidebar with Google shopping. I’ve never seen a comparison shopping service listed in google results, rather finding direct links to purchasing sites. Im not sure how they expect a comparison shopping service to show up on google. Do they need a sidebar with every option? EU regulators choose which ones are best? Anytime something might show up on a comparison shopping site try to link to it and then give priority to those sites over the direct purchasing links I prefer?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Protect Google at any cost! They help me continue to steal movies and music!”

If you’re using Google to find movies/music I offer you a quote:

“You know nothing Jon Snow”

There’s way better alternatives to find media.. Hell, nowadays you don’t even have to download with wonderful forks of decentralized streaming software.. Ah, technology is such a beautiful thing.

What you may consider ‘sorcery’ is really just ‘development’.

Protect google for having done nothing wrong against politicians who don’t understand that which they try to regulate and only parrot the line fed to them by greedy fat cats.

FTFY – no royalties necessary.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

So, the usual liars are out in force, I see?

Article: “The EU claim that Google is leveraging their search function to profit from legal shopping services. In fact, people are finding huge numbers of places to buy legally without Google’s direction.”

Obsessed AC troll morons: “waaaah! Piracy!”

It’s like they inhabit a parallel universe. Funny how we never see these guys on the regular articles criticising Google, though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Interpretations

“The determination that Google’s conduct is anticompetitive, and deserving of condemnation, would require an extensive balancing of these factors, a task that courts have been unwilling- in similar circumstances – to perform under Section 2. Thus, although it is a close question, Staff does not recommend that the Commission move forward on this cause of action.”

To me that reads as the Staff saying that Google may be up to shenanigans but resigning to the reality that the courts are probably too lazy to weigh in on a complex situation. Do you have a problem with lazy, rubber stamping courts?

Insofar as Google, old Froogle was great and useful. When Google Shopping changed to include only products specifically added to Google Shopping, it ceased to be useful and I stopped using it. Google hardly gave me “the best user experience” by that switch.

Anonymous Coward says:

So if that’s the new standard for anti-competitive…

Does the Sony website also have to equally promote competitors products now too?

Can Nabisco no longer specify their brand for the ingredients in recipes?

Shouldn’t each company get to advertise and promote to their harts content on their own website. If you want non-biased data use a different search tool.

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