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After A Month, Silence From The FTC On Search Engine Disclosure
A month ago, I sent a letter to the US Federal Trade Commission asking it to review how search engines are complying with its guidelines on disclosing listings where payment is involved. The silence since then, as the saying goes, has been deafening. That’s a pity given how important that review is to the on-going antitrust investigation of Google on both sides of the Atlantic.
This week, I emailed the FTC on Monday as a follow-up, asking if after so much time, it had any response at all. I heard nothing back. Later that day, I went old school, picked up the phone and called the press office. I was told that yes, my letter had been received and that yes, I would hear back at some point.
I emailed one last time yesterday. Did the FTC have any comment at all that I could put into the “it’s been a month” story that I was writing. No response.
Google Backs Review; Others Are Mum
I’ll stay tuned. The issue isn’t going to disappear. In particular, next week I’ll be writing a follow-up article with one of two headlines:
Google Supports FTC Review Of Search Engine Disclosure Compliance; Microsoft Doesn’t
Google & Microsoft Support FTC Review Of Search Engine Disclosure Compliance
WebProNews already had the first headline last week. While I was on vacation (two full weeks off, completely unplugged, it was great, thanks!), the publication did a survey of Google, Microsoft, Expedia and Orbitz, asking who backed a review. The results? Google was in favor, Microsoft had no comment and the latter two didn’t respond at all.
Google gave me the same statement this week that it gave WebProNews:
Consumers benefit from clear labeling in search results, and we have always clearly disclosed which links are paid advertisements. That said, not all search engines clearly disclose paid results, so we would support a fresh look by the FTC at search labeling and transparency practices.
I’ll be checking directly myself with Microsoft next week, hence why you’ll see one of those two headlines I mentioned above. It’ll be a nice way to keep the issue fresh. Maybe then it’ll get a little notice from, I don’t know, any of the mainstream media?
Mainstream Media Coverage Mum
My letter was sparked by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal from Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz attacking Google on transparency grounds. I dissected that piece, illustrating how when it came to transparency, Nextag was likely violating the FTC’s guidelines on paid disclosure. Then I moved on to my FTC letter, because the entire industry seems to be having issues in various degrees with the guidelines.
I’d have thought that might have been worth a story in at least one mainstream news publication, dare I hope even the Wall Street Journal, which started it all? Nope. The Wall Street Journal cannot seem to get enough about writing any story that involves Google and the FTC but this story — and it’s a legit one — got ignored.
Hey, it’s not like the New York Times bothered covering it either, that I saw. News of the letter also happened just before Apple announced the new MacBooks and iOS 6. I guess there wasn’t time to look at it, with all that madness going on.
Pity though, because when Apple announced that it would have new maps powered by Yelp, that’s one of those disclosure things that perhaps consumers should know about. Is Yelp paying for that placement? Is Apple getting paid? Should consumers know about that relationship, just like they might need to know about relationships Google has with handset makers or Microsoft has? That’s all stuff I addressed in my letter, stuff that got ignored.
Heck, I even emailed Robert Thomson, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal offering to write an opinion piece of my own for the WSJ on the topic. No response. Kind of sad, because I genuinely enjoyed sitting with him on a panel in 2009 on newspapers and journalism.
Independent Experts Not Wanted?
That was an FTC panel, by the way, that I was asked to take part in. So I’m not exactly a crackpoint nor an entity unknown to the FTC. In fact, the entire reason the FTC has search engine guidelines in the first place was because of reporting I did last decade on possible consumer confusion when it came to search engine listings.
That leads to something else that’s been annoying me, somewhat related. I’ve had a number of calls this week from reporters trying to understand what might happen with the European Union’s antitrust review of Google. Remember in May, how the EU loudly and publicly gave Google four points it wanted responses to by July 2? Google responded, and now we wait.
One reason for the calls is because we don’t know what Google said. The EU hasn’t released the letter. It wasn’t shy about demanding it, and with all this talk about transparency being batted about, you’d think it would have immediately released the letter so we could all know what Google said. Google, which confirms to me that it did send a letter, says it’s up to the EU to release the contents.
Tap tap, so we wait. Reporters try to guess what the next step might be. I get call from them, because I’ve covered the search space for 16 years now. I’m considered somewhat of an expert.
My typical response is that both the EU and the US have problems with their cases because of a fundamental misunderstanding of how search engines work (see also Dear Congress: It’s Not OK Not To Know How Search Engines Work, Either). That’s prompted some reaction from reporters I’ve talked with that surely the regulators have been carefully researching all of this for months.
Not really. I’m not convinced of that. I know I’ve not spoken with FTC or EU investigators, and there are few, if any, who have been looking at the search engine space for as long as I have. If you were trying to understand the current landscape, trying to do it properly, I think it would be worth talking to me.
But hey, that’s me. Of course I’d think that! But the point of writing the paragraph above isn’t an attempt to be big-headed or because I somehow feel put-out. I don’t have any personal disappointment here. I have a professional disappointment with governments, because I’ve continued to learn that in these type of investigations, they seems to only talk to people that the lobbyists push toward them rather than getting out and doing independent research.
Who will the regulators hear from? Well, the EU did send Google advertisers a lengthy survey (by the way, the fact there was no fifth point in the recent EU letter about ads influencing listings means the EU failed to disclose that was an accusation if must have determined wasn’t true). But really, I suspect they hear from anyone that Microsoft-backed FairSearch pushes forward with what will inevitably be an anti-Google view. Meanwhile, Google’s busy funding experts of its own which independently discover there might be a First Amendment protection for its listings (hmm, where have I heard that before?)
Me, having watched the search engine industry grown up, I want it to be healthy to players all around: the search engines, the companies that depend on them and the consumers. Rather than the current antitrust review being driven by Google competitors, not worried about consumers but their own bottom lines — and depending on lobbyist research — I want an actual solid investigation into how the entire industry deals with search listings, to see if there are problems for consumers.
Back To Disclosure
That leads me back to my call for a review of disclosure. One solution to the EU’s points of contention might be better disclosure of self-promotional listings, as my colleague Greg Sterling covered last month (see Settlement Of Google-Europe Antitrust Claims Might Involve Labeling “Google Products” In SERP). If so, that’s really something the entire industry should do, not just Google.
More important, it’s difficult now to even know what we consider to be a search listing that’s supposedly “fair” or “neutral” or not. Nextag is one of the shopping search engines all riled up that Google supposedly favors its own shopping search engine by promoting Google Product Search in Google’s main results.
Problem solved. Google Product Search To Become Google Shopping, Use Pay-To-Play Model from us in May covers how Google is dropping those shopping results to instead show a shopping ad box, since all of its shopping search listings are to become ads. No one really questions that Google can’t run its own ads in its main results, even for itself. Antitrust case closed?
When is a search listing an ad? When does an ad need to be disclosed? These are foundational answers you need to know if you really want to conduct a review about anti-competitive actions. The FTC had compiled guidelines covering these types of things. But in the nearly 10 years since those were created, the search engines themselves seem happy to ignore or redefine those. That’s why it’s essential the FTC conduct a review. I don’t see how you do an antitrust review without the disclosure review.
I am hopeful something will come of my letter. I was encouraged to see Marvin Ammori write in GigaOm last month that a review should happen. I do have faith the FTC will eventually get back to me. Stay tuned.
- Deconstructing Google: After The Google Antitrust Breakup
- Google: Master Of Closing The Loop?
- Fights In The Google Monopoly Debate Miss Key Points
- The Incredible Stupidity Of Investigating Google For Acting Like A Search Engine
- The New York Times Algorithm & Why It Needs Government Regulation
- Once Again: Should Google Be Allowed To Send Itself Traffic?
- Bing’s Travel Search & Kayak Favoritism Angers No One, While Google’s Gets Headline Attention From WSJ
- Dear Congress: It’s Not OK Not To Know How Search Engines Work, Either
- Real-Life Examples Of How Google’s “Search Plus” Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy
- FAQ: What’s The Debate About Google’s Search Plus Your World?
- Once Deemed Evil, Google Now Embraces “Paid Inclusion”
- Google Product Search To Become Google Shopping, Use Pay-To-Play Model
- Given Nextag’s Lack Of Transparency, Its WSJ Opinion Piece Asking For Google Transparency Isn’t Wise
- Report: Google Makes Offer To Europeans To Prevent Antitrust Action
- A Letter To The FTC Regarding Search Engine Disclosure Compliance