One area that the Justice Department’s Google-ITA settlement didn’t cover was so-called “search neutrality.” In a nutshell, this is the misguided notion that Google shouldn’t be permitted to send traffic to its own properties. In the extreme it argues that the government should regulate Google’s algorithm as well.
While the term “search neutrality” carries a certain abstract appeal, as a practical matter it’s a utterly unworkable.
Just after the DOJ-ITA release went out this morning the FairSearch.org collection of online travel companies were celebrating “victory” on behalf of consumers. Later on a conference call with reporters they expressed the hope that the DOJ-ITA action was just the beginning of a broader antitrust case against Google.
Fear of a Google Travel Vertical
In particular, they want to restrain Google’s ability to send traffic to an anticipated travel vertical. According to a write up in PaidContent:
Asked why they’re happy when Google is touting the deal’s approval as a win, Tom Barnett, a lawyer with Expedia, said: “As antitrust officials look at those issues, there’s some telling signs that give you an indication of what may come… They took an enforcement action in a vertical merger. That’s unusual. They did that because of Google’s power in search dominance” . . . “I do think there’s sufficient basis to open a broader investigation” . . . “Google may well be using its dominance in general search engine to foreclose the ability of other sites to get visibility on the web, and to steer users to Google’s own sites, in a way that might be anti-competitive.”
The argument being made by Expedia lawyer Barnett above is that Google’s very ability to “steer users to [its] own sites” is anti-competitive. This is the crux of “search neutrality.”
Because it is a flawed principle it will never be “enacted” or required by regulators, who really don’t want to intervene in the SERP. One could hypothetically imagine a periodic audit to make sure that Google wasn’t punishing selected competitors. However denying Google the ability to send traffic to Google Maps or News or YouTube or a future Google Travel deprives consumers of choice more than it preserves competition.
What if Google were to build a great travel site? Wouldn’t consumers want access to it? Shouldn’t Google be able to expose it?
No Guarantee of Success for Google
Of course there’s no guarantee that Google will in fact build a great travel site. Google Finance has only a fraction of the usage of Yahoo Finance, despite the fact that Google Finance is the first in the list of results that respond to stock ticker queries.
Though it’s a powerful way consumers discover information, Google isn’t the only way to build a brand or get traffic. Google’s travel competitors can continue to thrive by building better products and promoting them in creative ways, including with social media.
They should stop longing for “search neutrality” and just build better sites and consumer experiences.