Once Again: Should Google Be Allowed To Send Itself Traffic?

The question of Google’s right to refer traffic to its own sites is once again in the center of policy debate. The European Commission is looking at this issue as part of its larger anti-trust investigation against Google. It’s also a question at the heart of the federal regulatory review of the ITA acquisition.

Preferential treatment in search

This weekend a story appeared in the Wall Street Journal (others are in the works) that features a number of web CEOs complaining or expressing concern about Google giving “preferential treatment” to its own properties:

Google Inc. increasingly is promoting some of its own content over that of rival websites when users perform an online search, prompting competing sites to cry foul.

The Internet giant is displaying links to its own services—such as local-business information or its Google Health service—above the links to other, non-Google content found by its search engine.

Google issued a blog post in response to the story saying that it’s trying to find the best result for users and doesn’t have a specific duty to publishers:

When someone searches for a place on Google, we still provide the usual web results linking to great sites; we simply organize those results around places to make it much faster to find what you’re looking for. For example, earlier this year we introduced Place Search to help people make more informed decisions about where to go. Place pages organize results around a particular place to help users find great sources of photos, reviews and essential facts. This makes it much easier to see and compare places and find great sites with local information . . .

As Susan and Udi wrote, we built Google for users, not websites. We welcome ongoing dialog with webmasters to help ensure we’re building great products, but at the end of the day, users come first. If we fail our users, competition is just a click away.

There are many complicated technical and philosophical questions raised by this discussion, which has come up periodically over the years. If you take the position that Google is a “utility” that can make or break publisher sites because, as a practical matter, there is no competition in search you reach very different conclusions than you would if you see Google as one competitor among many. Hence the familiar refrain, repeated in the Google blog post, is “competition is just a click away.”

Accordingly there are major legal and policy implications depending on how Google is “defined.”

The problem of “search neutrality”

The problematic term “search neutrality” has also been popping up recently in connection with articles about Google’s search dominance. To my knowledge the term appeared first in connection with a complaint filed by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council regarding whether Google was “biased” in favor of large organizations in its search results. While the idea has appeal because of implied notions of fairness, I wrote at the time that any actual implementation of such an idea would be totally impractical:
Would search engines need to rectify imbalances by offering privileged status to certain types of results? This would bring a massive outcry.

The concept of “search neutrality” has been invoked by Google opponents to argue that Google shouldn’t be permitted to favor its own properties (or by implication change its algorithm). This shows up in the WSJ piece:

This fall, Google made its links to its millions of Place pages even more prominent on the first search results page, pushing sites such as TripAdvisor.com farther down the page for searches on “Berlin hotels,” for instance. Place pages for businesses give basic information such as location and hours as well as a summary of user-generated reviews from sites like Citysearch and Yelp. Carter Maslan, a Google product management director, acknowledged “a little bit” of tension between Google and local-information sites. But he said the changes are meant to improve users’ experience by getting them more information about businesses faster, and to provide links to review sites.

Upset over lost traffic

To some degree this is about publishers “settled expectations” and changes in the Google algorithm disrupting them: “we’re getting less traffic than we used to.” As the WSJ piece points out Bing operates in a way that is similar, often referring traffic to its own sites. In the broader context of the evolution of search all the engines, Yahoo included, have been moving toward “answers not links.” That means more structured content on page one of SERPs and less clicking through to third party sites.

Publishers might argue that there isn’t a “level playing field” and Google has a competitive advantage vs. others. There’s truth in that argument but if it were entirely correct wouldn’t every one of Google’s products “win” its segment? That hasn’t been the case. Google has many under-performing products.

But because online search is the “gateway to the internet” and because Google “owns” more than 65 percent of query volume in the US (more in some EU countries) it’s not unreasonable to debate these questions. Yet Yahoo and Bing, combined, have a meaningful 28 percent of search volume. Isn’t that competition — or is that a “duopoly”?

In technology you can’t really regulate a competitive market into existence though you could potentially help restore competition to one out of balance. You’re ultimately seeking to ensure choice and prevent pricing distortions that may impact end-users (consumers, advertisers). Those values don’t seem to be implicated in this discussion. Competing CEOs might argue that long term there’s less choice if their sites go out of business. But you can’t make an argument that your site is entitled to position 1 or 2 (and so on) in SERPs.

Mapquest executives will argue that Google’s ability to refer traffic to itself is what helped Google Maps topple the long-time mapping leader from its number 1 spot two years ago. Yes, Google did send traffic to its own maps. However the answer is not that simple; the Google product was better than Mapquest. The latter had been complacent for several years due to management distractions at TimeWarner and didn’t invest in the product until relatively recently.

What are Google’s obligations to others?

Does Google have a right to offer its own content and products at all? That question is lurking in this discussion. Most people would say “yes.” The question then quickly becomes: can Google send traffic to its own mapping or product search or video or news sites? If you say “no” then what does that mean in practice? Does Google need to remove all references to its own products from organic results?

Alternatively should Google’s own products be in some fixed position on the page below other publishers? What are or should be Google’s “obligations” to third party publishers? This is the central question it seems to me.

These are all very difficult issues and become extremely problematic at the level of execution. If regulators start intervening in Google’s ability to control its algorithm and its own SERP it sets a bad precedent and compromises Google’s ability to innovate and maybe even compete over time. However I’m not trying to dismiss concerns about Google’s power and impact on the market. There are no easy regulatory answers at the level of the SERP.

In the case of the map-pack/0-pack/x-pack, one of the scenarios raised in the WSJ piece, Google often sends traffic directly to local websites rather than to publisher-aggregators, which used to get that traffic.

One used to see huge amounts of travel-affiliate spam in SERPs on Google. Queries like “Sheraton, New York” brought up numerous affiliate directories before the hotel site itself. Google addressed that, cleaned up the pages, and delivered a better user experience. Very few people would want to go back to affiliate travel spam. (I’m not talking about sites like Kayak or Orbitz.)

What if the Google Places Page or Shopping or Maps actually do offer a better experience than the sites of those voicing criticism? This is subjective but Places Pages often do offer a better user experience than many of the local competitors in the market.

Being a public company compels Google to chase new markets

The notion that Google should be nothing more than a shell or traffic hose is flawed; it’s also a fantasy. Google is a public company looking for growth. It will continue to expand, pursue its own interests and improve its products in areas where it sees opportunity.

Google shouldn’t be permitted, it seems to me, to manipulate search results to punish specific publishers or competitors. In addition, one might argue that Google shouldn’t be permitted to consistently reserve the top organic position in organic results for its own sites. But this is precisely the case with “onebox” and “smart answers” and comparable offerings across all the engines. Yahoo offers the most elaborate of these with its “accordion” smart answer:

It has also been held by courts that the content of SERPs is an “editorial” arena protected by the First Amendment. So hypothetically Google could only show Google-related results and still be within the law.

It must also be said that Google is not the only way for companies to get exposure in the market. Publishers and site owners got used to “free” traffic from Google SERPs and have developed a kind of “vested interest” in that traffic. But any one site is no more “entitled” to traffic than any other site. By contrast, the only place right now where I do see facts that raise potential anti-competitive concern arise out of the Skyhook-Google litigation. But that suit is in process and all the facts not out.

Google’s dominance of the market may decline in a few years. I’m not a laissez-faire, free-market lover but the market may take care of itself. Facebook and others are working on ways to discover content that don’t require conventional search-engine usage. Indeed Google is quite concerned about this, which is why it’s working so diligently on an improved “social” strategy.

The powerful will always be tempted to utilize their power for unfair gain. The duty of regulators is to keep markets fair and functioning for the good of the larger system and society. When any single company becomes too powerful or gains too much control over a market segment governments should look carefully to see if any manipulation or bad behavior is going on.

However in my mind the Google Places algorithm doesn’t qualify.

Also see our previous piece related to this topic, The Incredible Stupidity Of Investigating Google For Acting Like A Search Engine.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Critics | Google: Legal | Google: Place Pages | Google: SEO | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • http://www.searchmarketingcommunications.com Tim Cohn

    Are utilities not allowed to use their own feedstock?

  • http://www.planetc1.com/ chiropractic

    I find it hard to believe “we built Google for users, not websites” holds true today. Appears more like Google builds where they believe they can increase advertising, and then rallies around that idea.

  • http://www.geocast.com Colin Bruce

    A simple suggestion would be to force google (and other search providers) to rank content in an egalitarian mechanism i.e. they can’t prefer their own solution unless their solution is the ranked solution.

    Nice in theory but almost impossible to police.

    That fact most Google pages are marked in their robots.txt as uncrawlable is very uncompetitive. Having your cake and eating it is abusing the monopoly.

  • http://steveridesabike.wordpress.com Stephen Palkot

    “A simple suggestion would be to force google (and other search providers) to rank content in an egalitarian mechanism i.e. they can’t prefer their own solution unless their solution is the ranked solution.”

    I also demand that Search Engine Land no longer internally link back to their stories. Or perhaps we can create an algorithm that objectively finds a resource on the topic to ensure that SEL doesn’t deprive other SEO publications of traffic. Or, other SEO publications can band together and file an FTC complaint against SEL for linking to its own material within stories.

    And you know what? I like the map in search results. It’s more convenient to type an address into the general search box in Firefox than to go into maps.google.com. Consider this Google user happy with “universal” search.

  • kangsu

    Isn’t Microsoft allowed to ship their own web browser? Oh wait, that’s what got MS in trouble.

    The real question is if Google is a monopoly. If it is then they play by different rules. And one of those rules is that they can’t use their monopoly (presumably keyword search) to leverage their position into new markets (e.g., local search).

  • http://fjpoblam fjpoblam

    MS had to react to the “browser favoritism” gripe by offering a choice of browsers at Windows install time. Browsers could react by offering a choice of default SE during each and every browser install (including each and every upgrade, just to be sure?).

    Given all this, how many users will “take the default” instead of considering that “competition is just a click away.”

  • David_lou

    “It has also been held by courts that the content of SERPs is an “editorial” arena protected by the First Amendment. So hypothetically Google could only show Google-related results and still be within the law.”

    That settles it. Google isn’t a traffic pump, and it’s not obligated to send traffic to anyone, it’s obligated to give answers and if you don’t like it point you browser elsewhere.

  • http://www.jaankanellis.com Jaan Kanellis
  • pjhile

    Blog publishers shouldn’t be permitted, it seems to me, to manipulate social media links to punish other publishers or competitors. What if these authors end up linking back to their own sites and not to their competitors? /s

  • http://www.geocast.com Colin Bruce

    If the MS monopoly had been allowed to continue then the Internet would not be the entity it is today. Failure to understand the concept and implications of monopoly (however it was arrived at) is very risky.

    Most people were perfectly happy to use the IE browser – why did they care that MS was being forced to unbundle? Sites still loaded as far as they were concerned. If that had been allowed to continue you can imagine the software that would have been forced upon us…

    This is not an end user issue. Never has been and never will be. Users want simplicity, they are apathetic and habitual. That user’s wanted simplicity was the MS argument. In the process of monopoly busting you may create a short term situation where the end user is worse off. This is a service provider issue and concerns the control Google has over almost every website in the world.

  • pjhile

    @Colin Bruce, If the MS monopoly had been allowed to continue, the Internet might be a much better entity than it is today. Failure to understand the implications of the monopoly on use of force is much more risky than whining about a company’s market share.

    Being an open standard/source guy, I would have loved to see MS raise their prices/bundling/etc. to the point where people were begging for alternatives. Instead, users described as ‘apathetic and habitual’ are voting on how to bully businesses around. In the end, after mountains of regulations stifle innovation and competition to a breaking point, we’ll all end up losing out.

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