european police A formal antitrust investigation into Googles search, ranking, and advertising practices has been launched by the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union.

The European Commission will investigate 4 allegations.

1. Google Manipulates Organic Search In Its Favor

Google would have abused its search might by selectively lowering the organic search rankings of competing services. Additionally, Google would then have boosted the placement of its own vertical search services, placing them ahead of the competition.

Guilty or Not?

This kind of thing has long been suspected by some SEOs but is hard to proof. The best and so far most convincing case was made by Ben Edelman in Hard-Coding Bias in Google "Algorithmic" Search Results where he demonstrates that Google services will rank in very unnatural ways when compared with any other way the search engines seems to rank web pages.

The Google Health Topics page thus reveals a remarkable combination of characteristics:

1) complete, 100% success at achieving the top-most algorithmic search position for all terms where Health results appear at all,

2) complete, 100% success at achieving this top-most position for every single one of the 2,642 keywords Health elected to write about, yet

3) complete, 0% failure as to even the tiniest variations of listed terms.

These characteristics are inconsistent with ordinary algorithmic web search.

Google usual own stance on their organic search product is No manual intervention:

"Does Google manually edit its results?" Let me just answer that with our third philosophy: no manual intervention. [] The final ordering of the results is decided by our algorithms using the contributions of the greater Internet community, not manually by us.
Amit Singhal, Google Fellow

Now I emphasized that this is Googles usual stance because in its official response Google does not, this time, stress that its search results are purely automatic. Susan Wojcicki (Senior VP Product Management) and Udi Manber (VP Engineering) lay out no less than 5 principles that guide Googles business but fail to mention what Amit called Googles third philosophy.

The case has always been suspicious but unless someone in Google would make a really good response explaining why Ben Edelmans research doesnt show what it implies, Google sure as hell looks guilty here.

2. Google Manipulates Drives Ad Prices Competitors Up By Lowering Their Quality Score

Quality Score is one of the factors that help set the price for your ad on Google. Lower Quality Score, higher price.

The allegation here is that Google selectively and manually lowered the Quality Score of competing vertical search services, driving up their price and lowering their position and thus visibility.

Guilty or Not?

I alluded to this situation in Google Boutiques & The Improved Google Vertical Model where I showed " unrelated to this story " that Google Adwords advertisement bought by Google for its own products appears frequently and often at the (most expensive) top spot and asked Quick, heres an envelope: how much can you bid on your fashion item Adwords term to outbid Google for those top spots?

Google ad

Google ad

 

Harder to demonstrate but it looks suspicious. I dont expect this part of the investigation to go anywhere unless they would have a Wikileaks-style whistle blower who will dump some Philip Morris type internal documents showing that this is what was happening.

3. Google Locks Our Other Ad Services Through Exclusivity

The open-and-shut part of the formal investigation: Google is suspected of forcing competing advertising services out of the market by putting the obligation on ad publishers to not include certain type of other, competing, ads on their web sites.

Guilty or Not?

Unequivocally guilty as charged. Up to early 2008 the Adsense program policies stated:

If You have elected to receive content or Site-based Ads, You further agree not to display on any Serviced Page any non-Google content-targeted advertisement(s). If You have elected to receive Search Results on any Site(s), You agree that Google will be the exclusive provider of Internet search services on such Site(s).

4. Google Locks In Advertisers By Preventing Data Export

By not allowing publishers to export their advertising campaign data to competing services, Google maintains a grip on a number of large advertisers.

Guilty or Not?

Probably guilty-ish but this seems like an oh, lets throw this in there too kind of allegation.Some data can be exported and if it cannot be exported directly to a competing service, maybe the competing service should make sure to be able to work with it?

What This Means For You

Dont expect an outcome any time soon. While it doesnt take rocket science to run a search engine, it does take huge number crunching and having a commission of non-experts wrap their hand around that via the translated and interpreted explanations from hired mathematicians will take ages eons time.

SEOs will closely watch this case for crumbs of ranking information that might fall on the ground: inflected knowledge is better than none.

But business owners and marketers have nothing to go on. The investigation itself doesnt herald a change in the search engine marketing world; even when found guilty on all charges Google will, for the foreseeable future, remain most web sites largest traffic driver.

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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5 Responses to “Official Antitrust Investigation Into Google Launched #Europe”

  1. Leo says:

    Your article doesn't mention ejustice.fr (one of the plaintiff). Earlier this year a French online newspaper reported about their story (Google filtering their results, them having no more revenue from Adsense and having to fire most of their employees) – the title of the article was along the lines of: "Google decides whether your business lives or dies" (good headline for the people who like the David against Goliath story).

    What they didn't say was that ejustice website was 90% cr*p (majority of their pages were framed Google Personalized Search and A LOT of auto-generated pages coming from an XSS vulnerability their site was suffering from). They cleaned the XSS pages but are continuing to generate pages mostly via iframed results from Google Personalized Search – no unique content to speak of (and any simpleton with the slightest SEO knowledge knows that Google likes that – doesn't have to be Shakespeare – spinned content works – but has to be "somewhat" unique, not regurgitated page from Google itself).

    Google "Do no evil" mantra is a joke, especially in view of their privacy policies and some of Eric Schmidt comments, but at least from ejustice point of view, the antitrust investigation should be very quickly resolved.
    .-= Leo recently posted: Web Design for Hair Salon =-.

  2. JBestler says:

    This makes me sick. What happened to people putting up a web site and being able to make their own rules for their own site? If you dont like it, don't use it… To me, it's that simple. Just like with the Microsoft anti-trust hearings, if you don't like it, build something better!

    Where does this end? Does every website owner who places links on their web site have to bow down and allow every site that wants to have a link, have a link? Ridiculous!!!

    • Ruud Hein says:

      I know what you mean, JBestler.

      Maybe scale changes the rules of the game. Just like you or I would never be bailed out by a government but a bank, even a shadowy swindling one, might as long as they're considered "too big to fail". Likewise, you and I don't get restricted by the rules a market dominating force like Google is expected to play by.

      I found Edelman's article terribly illuminating though.

  3. Jon Wade says:

    I admit, I have always been a little suspicious about Google adverts, i.e. the ones for itself. One of my sites is a local business directory, so it often gets Google Places ads appearing. Are they really paying more than local businesses who are targeting those keywords, or do they just have the highest quality score for every they do?
    .-= Jon Wade recently posted: Excell Communications Go Into Administration =-.

  4. [...] European antitrust investigation into Google continues as European regulators ask vertical search rivals just how they would have been [...]