The EU Commission’s Statement of Objections against Google deal with how the search engine displays its comparison engine in its search results, giving it an unfair advantage over other comparison sites (effectively search engines in their own right). The company believes it has ‘a strong case’ as it provides ‘better services for users and increased competition’ – something it may be able to argue successfully, as the EU Antitrust Objections seem to rely on the fact that Google’s search results were previously better and are getting more unfair.
The first objection reads: ‘Google systematically positions and prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits.’
Google could easily just move its price search product away from general search results to the homepage, like Image search, thus cutting out other aggregators completely.
But the search engine doesn’t do anything ‘regardless of merit’ – testing its results extensively – and has recently confirmed that click data – what its users click on and how long they spend on a site before returning to Google – can and often does influence how search results are ranked. Google will want to prove that users are engaging more with their ‘unfair’ comparison shopping engine than with brands like TripAdvisor who understand better than most what goes into Google’s algorithm and can change strategy accordingly.
Google could – and probably should – argue that the EU Commission is less qualified to define ‘merit’ in search results than a search company that owns 90 per cent of the market. According to Searchmetrics’ 2014 Ranking Factors report, user signals are now the most significant ranking factor – if anyone is qualified to decide on what is a good search result, it’s users, in which case Google has enough data to argue that its own comparison engine does provide value to users. It’s not just about the number of clicks a site gets, but the amount of time spent with the site, so Google may be able to prove that it would maintain its position regardless of whether it was subject to algorithms or not.
Likewise Google could argue that other comparison shopping engines such as MoneySupermarket and Cheapflights – who have both received manual penalties for manipulative practices in the distant past – became competitive in the first place without providing a good experience for users. The Statement of Objections notes that Google’s comparison shopping services are not subject to the same system of penalties ‘which it applies to other comparison shopping services on the basis of defined parameters’ – Google will argue that those parameters are defined clearly; that other comparison services are aware of the parameters; and that these parameters have been systematically ignored.
The EU also claims that: ‘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.’
Search – and marketing – is a zero-sum game. In order to gain market share it has to be taken from somebody else. If Google subjected itself to the same criteria as everyone else…it would still take that market share because it knows those algorithms inside out. If anything it would take more market share, because a search for “travel insurance” brings up Google’s comparison engine, but any kind of longtail search (say for example “how much does travel insurance cost”) does not. In the UK, it brings up MoneySupermarket. Are the comparison sites content to limit Google’s access to the 368,000 people who search specifically for “travel insurance” each month, or do they want to let Google get at the rest of them too?
Stephen Kenwright is head of search for Branded3