The Incredible Stupidity Of Investigating Google For Acting Like A Search Engine

I did a search at Google today for “cars” and was shocked. Rather than list links allowing me to search for “cars” on Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, Voila, Naver and Yandex, Google instead favored its own search results. I’m glad the EU will be investigating whether this favoritism violates anti-trust laws.

Consider the evidence. Here’s a search on Google for cars:

As you can clearly see, none of the competing search engines I’ve named are listed in the top results. Rather than show them, Google instead shows pages about cars that it has collected across the web using its own technology.

Google’s behavior like this is preventing its competitors from receiving valuable traffic, clearly something Google has done to ensure it remains dominant. I mean, consider that you can indeed search at Bing and find results for cars:

Or you can search on Baidu and get results for cars:

But a search for “cars” at Google reveals none of this, to the searcher. It sends them directly to sites about cars! By doing so, rather than sending searchers to other search engines, Google abuses its dominant market position to prevent competing search engines from doing well.

How “Unbiased” Google Should Appear

How might “unbiased” search results at Google look, if we could finally get some decent “search neutrality” laws. I’ll simulate this for a search on “cars” not with an illustrated mockup but instead actual links that you can click on, so you can experience the better experience searchers would have, if Google wouldn’t favor itself. Here’s my interactive demo:

You searched for “cars”

About 6 results (0.08 seconds)

cars – Bing

bing.com/search?q=cars

cars – Yahoo! Search

search.yahoo.com/search?p=cars

百度搜索_cars

www.baidu.com/s?wd=cars

Yandex: has found 31 million answers

yandex.com/yandsearch?text=cars&lr=200

cars :: 네이버 통합검색

search.naver.com/search.naver?query=cars

Voila – Recherche de cars

search.ke.voila.fr/S/voila?rtype=kw&bhv=web_fr&profil=voila&rdata=cars

Please try the demo about to understand directly how much better Google would be as a search engine, if rather than favoring its “own” results, it instead made you leave to conduct your search elsewhere.

Enough Sarcasm

Time to get serious. I’ve watched the various arguments from some vertical search engines that Google is somehow “favoring” its own vertical search engine to harm them. On the face of it, it’s easy to get worked up and decide there’s some wrong doing.

Google points you to its own shopping search rather than a competing shopping search engine! Google even puts a box right within its own search results to entice you there, as you can see in this search for macbook pro:

How unfair to other shopping search engines. Please, someone, some government body, step in and prevent this from happening! Please ensure that Google doesn’t favor its own services this way!

Some Common Sense & Logic

If you step back from the rhetoric, the political jockeying, the concerns that Google is just too big so let’s use any argument to stop it — if you logically think about this argument from a user perspective — it makes no sense.

Google is a search engine. A search engine’s job is to point you to destination sites that have the information you are seeking, not to send you to other search engines. Getting upset that Google doesn’t point to other search engines is like getting upset that the New York Times doesn’t simply have headlines followed by a single paragraph of text that says “read about this story in the Wall Street Journal.”

It’s insane. It really is. A person comes to Google for answers. Back in the “old” days when search engines were just getting started, that generally meant simply getting lists of web pages (though even back then, even before Google, search engines also had some vertical search engines).

Over time, it has made more sense for search engines like Google — or Bing for that matter — to provide a better search experience by creating vertical search engines and blending them into regular search results (see Search 3.0: The Blended & Vertical Search Revolution for more about this).

It’s their job. If they are not allowed to do this, they cannot serve their users well. They are ultimately forced to do the idiotic thing I illustrated above and say to searchers, “Go away and search elsewhere.”

Let’s go back to that shopping search. Exactly how is Google favoring itself, again? It has a dedicated shopping search engine that lists external sites, destination sites — sites that are not on Google, for the most part. While some small shopping search engines may wish they had this traffic, they’d get it at the expense of these destination sites.

EU Investigating Google

Back to that European Union investigation. The news about it came out today, and the EU statement says it will investigate allegations in both Google’s editorial and paid results. The statement stresses that it’s just an investigation, not a conclusion:

This initiation of proceedings does not imply that the Commission has proof of any infringements. It only signifies that the Commission will conduct an in-depth investigation of the case as a matter of priority.

For one long account of Foundem’s side of things, a UK-based shopping search engine that’s become a cause célèbre around this issue and which helped prompt the investigation, I recommend reading this story from The Register.

Search Engines = Newspapers

Certainly on the advertising front, both the EU and the US have supported more restrictions about what a publication can do versus its editorial content. Google ultimately is a publication, a guide to the web. Like a newspaper, it can publish whatever it wants. That’s been supported in the US; we’ll see if the EU takes a different view. More important, we’ll see if the EU decides to apply rules about what a search engine can or can’t do versus what Google can or can’t do.

Bing, Google’s chief competitor in many countries, highly touts its own vertical search engines. If it’s unfair for Google, as a search engine, to “favor” its own vertical search engines, then the same should be true for all search engines.

Also see my prior post on this topic, The New York Times Algorithm & Why It Needs Government Regulation. It takes the poor wisdom of an New York Times editorial suggesting that Google needs regulation and flips things around to illustrate how newspaper-like search engines are — and how no newspaper would want to be examined this way. It also touches on things that can be concerning about Google. Goodness knows, it’s not perfect.

But on the vertical search engine front, where does it end? Shopping search not allowed, but not image search? News search but no blog search? Only web search? Even that? Will Google be deemed so dominant that the only way to ensure competition is to literally force it to send people away to competitors?

Postscript: Google now has a blog post up about the issues.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: Analysis | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Legal: General | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.villageadsseo.com Tim Biden

    The next thing that will happen is that we will all be forced to be like Geico and advertise for our competitors which will do nothing but create a price war. And heaven help us if we don’t send our clients to the competitors that the government deems “appropriate”.

    Its crazy how “Open Minded” people can be. Their damn brains have fallen out of their heads.

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    This reminds me of those lawsuits where one web site tries to stop another site from linking to them. Hyperlinks are illegal!!

  • mdrew

    Extending your argument, do you then believe that Microsoft should similarly be allowed to favor/tie-in its properties to its Windows operating system? The existence of Google’s ChromeOS seems to validate MS’s position that the browser is a logical extension of the OS. And would this case actually mirror Microsoft’s EU case? Your closing “Will Google be deemed so dominant that the only way to ensure competition is to literally force it to send people away to competitors?” seems to represent exactly what has been done to MS with the browser ballot.

  • http://www.tcampbell.net T Campbell

    When it comes to search engines, Europe keeps coming across as the old man in the apartment upstairs who calls the cops whenever you throw a party and turn the music up past “audible.” You know it’s not going to have any real consequences. He’s just trying to compensate for his reduced station in life, by being a nuisance while calling you one.

  • yazah

    Although I see what you are saying, I disagree. You assume that allegations of unfair competition refers to other search engines, such as Bing, etc. I think in this case it is looking at how Google competes with every other business in its search results.

    I’m specifically referring to allegations that Google “hard codes” its search results to promote its own services over those of advertisers or “legitimate” unmodified rankings. (See http://www.benedelman.org/hardcoding/)

    Perhaps Google has the right to place its own services above everyone else, but how Google does that has a very large impact on independent competition. I’m not saying that Google is necessarily guilty, but it is worth at least investigating to ensure that independent businesses and SEO’s at least have a chance to compete against Google.

  • http://www.portentinteractive.com Tom Schmitz

    This reminds me of the browser wars and how Microsoft was prosecuted for favoring Internet Explorer over Netscape.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Slow news day, Danny?

    GEICO is advertising for its competitors? I must have missed that. Anyone have a link to the YouTube version of the commercial?

  • http://nicdagreek.typepad.com/my_weblog/ J Nicholas Gross

    I *also* understand that the dispute is not about linking to another search engine per se, but, rather, linking to the most relevant result consistent with your algorithm. If you use this algorithm only selectively and self-servingly this is not consistent with the image you are trying to convey to the public that you are actually looking at relevance as opposed to some financial bias that affects the final ranking as shown to the user. IOW if Google gives you results A, B, C, for query Q today, but tomorrow starts to sell D, and suddenly the results are D, A, B with C disappearing – for no reason than a hand on the scales behind closed doors – this is in effect is gaming/biasing the system. It may be in SOME instances another vertical search engine IS the most “relevant” result in the Internet universe for the user’s query, and but for Google’s financial competition with that site (which is not disclosed to the user) it should show up. When a purportedly neutral “search engine” works 99.9% of the time, and makes you guess by not telling it is biasing the results the other .1% of the time, that is borderline IMO.

  • http://jadedtlc.blogspot.com JadedTLC

    I see this as a red herring to Google’s desire to acquire ITA software. This is the part that I could see some valid argument. Google shouldn’t be allowed to buy the vertical’s search software; let them build their own. #Monopoly

  • http://twitter.com/#!/dhpToronto Debbie Horovitch

    Interesting.

    Google still indexes only 20% of the searchable web, right? By not including the results of other search engines, they’re actually makeing themselves less relevant and less reliably comprehensive. Although I’ve never regularly used another search engine than Google, results in recent months have been less immediately fulfilling & searches take longer now to also refer to additional SEs on top of Goolge.

    For the smart searcher, Google is just introducing us to their younger sibling… bad move, I think becuase as Google gets more & more crotchety trying to protect their old dominance and keep the younger more nimble & creative search engines down by not highlighting when they index well, they’re actually sending them early audience – early adopters & influencers, who are always looking for the next new Google.

  • Luke Stone

    I’m all for good, healthy competition. Personally, I enjoy using Google as a searcher and a web publisher. If you have ever published a website and tried to get indexed and manage how you appear, you will know what I am saying. Google Webmaster tools is vastly more useful than bing or Yahoo. The support forums are also way more clear. (Think about how fun it is to use Microsoft documentation to diagnose an error code.)

    I think the reason that Google is so “big,” or more accurately, successful, is simple: user testing and usability. Their interfaces are clear, not cluttered up with distractions and are clearly shaped and reshaped based on response from users. How many companies do you know that actually care about your experience? Even more rare are companies that respond to your experience.

    I say good job Google! And thanks for writing this article :) God save us all during the next of the browser wars XD

  • ThatsRight_ItsMe

    I think I’m missing something here, the other search engines didn’t point back to google, so why does it have to be one way?

    When searching for items, it would be a terrible idea to wade through all the other links that basically say “search for this term with our engine”. It’s better getting right to the point because we already know there’s more than one engine.

    If you want one that pulls from multiple engines try dogpile or metacrawler. If you want to narrow your search down using only one engine, use that engine.

    The beginning of this blog appears to be the common complaint, “They’re so big, why aren’t they giving business away to other people? Obviously they must be evil.”

  • kangsu

    Danny, I *think* you may have missed the point on the EU investigation. I don’t think what they’re complaining about is what you’re doing in the car search. Rather I think it is more like Yelp or Trip Advisor results.

    If I search for “Tom’s Diner”, Google will _allegedly_ see that the Yelp Tom’s Diner page has high relevance, but Google will push it to the second page and instead surface “Google Local” results to the first page of links, although it may not be as relevant. Other pages I could imagine being in this boat besides Yelp are places like Trip Advisor, Expedia, Edmunds, Consumer Search, etc…

    I think that given their market position, their unpaid search links should rank relevance with no bias. They can carve out other spaces of real estate on their page specifically for “Google Local” or “Google Shopping” results, but manipulation of the unpaid links for the purpose of inflating Google properties does seem anti-competitive.

  • tomciaaa

    Honestly, the whole business of “algorithm shows the results are more relevant, but we exclude them” sounds more than fishy to me. It is the same as saying “that shopkeeper sold me the merchandise that brought him more profits”. Google is JUST A WEBSITE and you can’t really control the way a website presents its content unless there is some illegal material.
    But the same can be said about Microsoft favoring Internet Explorer and look what EU decided then…

  • http://www.gravytrain.co.uk Moxley_GT

    There are many of us, both in the search industry and outside, who have some concerns about Google – particulary in respect in privacy.

    So I’d much sooner see Google challeneged on the issues it should not be ,and not for, as Danny points out, doing it’s job correctly.

  • MarkGT

    Danny,

    I think you’ve based this priece on an incorrect assumption – so unfortunately most of what you’ve said is irrelevant!

    The companies that brought the complaints to the EU are not search engines at all. They are regular sites – with pages of information that they want to appear in Google’s result pages.

    Of course no-one is suggesting Google should just send you to other search engines – that would be ridiculous! And it seems to me you have deliberately spun this story in this way. Not sure why?

  • http://sharktamer sharktamer

    mdrew, you echoed the same sentiment I had while reading this article, and I’m quite surprised nobody has responded to your pertinent MS comments…? I had originally planned on posting something similar, and expected to be vehemently flamed, so the community silence on your pertinent MS comments has me puzzled.

  • BMillard

    More sarcasm:

    I went into my grocery store and in the end caps of aisles were bright colorful stack outs of the grocery stores own brand. It was store brand cereal and it wasnt even in the cereal section. Clearly the store makes more money on this cereal and I cant believe they would try to entice me to buy this cereal. All cereal should be in the cereal aisle and it should be organized not by profit margins but by popularity. In fact, come to think of it, I am really mad they didnt have the other grocery store’s cereal brand.

    Google doesnt have to show Yahoo/Bing maps/finance/shopping at all on Google. It’s their choice.

    What should we be concerned about? Google creating a new website that is true ecommerce and making it instantly soar to the top for all sorts of searches that it hasn’t not earn. We should also monitor that Google doesnt block non-search engine sites from the first page on relevant searches just because it wants to protect one of its own properties.

    Full disclosure: I have G stock and G makes my company lots of money each day. G even helps me find answers to my questions most of the time!

  • humayun

    The whole anti trust laws and fare competition issue, is beyond my understanding. It is like saying you run too fast for us, slow down or we will make the government tie shackles to your ankles.
    If someone becomes too big, let him become too big, then he uses his power to cheat let him do that. The users will see that and gradually go to the competition.
    But stopping someone from becoming too dominant is too stupid.
    I don’t even know who allowed this person to write an article here, he is too senseless.
    Does he want that we do a Google search and it show us Bing results, is that what he means?

  • Thomas W Tucker

    Does Bing show results from Google? A search engine should not search other search engines. We could end up with an eternal loop of results that point to no where. And if I want to know what Bing has found I query on Bing. If I want to know what Google has found I query Google. Why should Google query Bing for me. If they did people would be complaining that Google doesn’t search the web anymore but is piggy back riding Microsoft. And vice-versa. If I query for “Search Engines” in Google and only Google is in the results then we have a problem.

  • http://www.blumanfry.com Shane Crockett

    How incredibly annoying would it be if search engines were required to show their competitors links?

    Goto Google, search: dentist…
    results: Bing: dentist, Yahoo: dentist..
    Click: Bing: dentist…
    results: Google: dentist, Yahoo: dentist..
    Click: Yahoo: dentist
    results: Bing: dentist, Google: dentist…

    Infinite loop anyone? I could see my parents clicking on this loop. Let the search engines do their thing, and if you don’t like one, move to a different one.. I use a combination of a few regularly, so I’m not pinned down to just one, but most the results are similar except for the ads, which makes sense.

    Shane Crockett
    Web Developer
    http://www.blumanfry.com

  • http://w1sdumb.wordpress.com dennis bartlett

    Talk about thread hijacking! The points above, in both comment and article, whilst they may have validity in their own right, are way off topic. This is not about whether G should offer B’s links.

    This is not a browser war issue at all.

    The original intent of objection was that G’s results favor only those that were favored before, in other words page ranking. The more a page is accessed the more it will appear closer to page 1. Now this is all very well, but the ranking algorithm presents a commercial model – sites that make the most money appear first.

    What G does, it does well. It offers the user a text box, and then delivers content that G has deemed is suitably apt for the text entered. What G is not, is a neutral search engine.

    G is not in any way delivering a just cross section of what could be accessed concerning the text entered. By definition a “search engine” is expected to return results encompassing the whole repertoire of what is man’s collective experience, even those ideas that never made it to the stardom of having been accessed before.

    In fact, it is these morsels that need to be searched out. A page laboriously typed out from Granma’s compendium of all things originally published in 1870 was returned in 1998 by HotBot, Dogpile, and Inference. Not one of the above mentioned “search engines” returns a reference now.

    Does that make this document any less important for mankind? I think not. The arts were seldom inspired by the making of money. What this compendium offered was a unique way of applying silver to the back of a mirror; a way incredibly useful for a modern application, that is lost for all time to the majority of searchers because it (a) never got accessed and probably more importantly (b) never made money.

    What I fear most in all of this, is that page accesses are only inflated by the fashion fads, the common sheep. Does this mean then that the only remaining pool of knowledge accessible to the next generation will be a dwindling pot discarding the serious in favor of the frivolous? Or, in the arms of the conspiracy theorists, does this not leave us open for a history re-write, wherein all results returned have their place in the results solely because they convey a message convenient for the agenda?

    Who knows? Perhaps even this comment will become the focus of yet another war, whilst the one to whom all the fingers ought be pointing, gets away with doing as they please, much in the same way as democracy has neutered the people.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Mdrew, it’s an excellent point and perhaps the EU might do that.

    With Microsoft, part of it was due to, if I recall right, the idea that Microsoft itself had unfairly gained dominance with its operating system. In contrast, it’s harder to say that Google built its huge dominance in the same way. While it has some deals to be the default search engine on some computers, they’re not as wide-spread as Microsoft’s arrangements were. By and large, people use Google because they want to use it.

    The EU isn’t looking to “remedy” Google’s dominance, which might require it to ask people to come there to ballot box pick. But it might decide that in the case of vertical search, maybe when Google shows shopping or news results, it might also have to offer other choices or make people pick them.

    That would be kind of weird – imagine searching on Google for news and being told to pick Yahoo News among the choices. Kind of like opening the New York Times and being asked if you want the LA Times sports section to be included. But if Google were really smart, it might allow people to pick a provider for certain types of searches. I think this actually might be an option in some very limited types of searches.

    In terms of Chrome OS, the EU hasn’t caused Apple to have a ballot box for its operating system, either because there’s been no anti-competitive actions against Apple or because the share is too small. So, Chrome OS might escape the same.

    Yazah, those aren’t hard codes. Those are long-standing OneBox displays. The only reason they don’t appear in what Ben searched for is that rather than search for a stock, he ads on character that actually isn’t a stock search, so you don’t get a stock display. But those boxes are usually leading to Google’s own vertical search engines, so it’s all the same issue. And if it’s not allowed to do this, then the question is why would Bing be allowed to? It does exactly the same, as does Yahoo, something that I don’t think Ben got into.

    JadedTCL, the ITA database indeed is a separate issue. But if Google can’t buy it, can others? Is Google just too large now that it has to be stopped from doing what competitors would be allowed? That might be what’s decided, but it feels kind of strange.

    Debbie, Google actually does include content from from a variety of search engines. It’s not that these have been blocked out. Google does, however, generally try to avoid indexing actual search results pages.

    Kangsu, it’s the same point. I could have redone the car example for a local merchant. Should the results only be links to Yelp, Foursquare, Yahoo Local and so on? And if Google has its own local search engine, does that mean it only gets to have one listing among those? Actually, Google tends to link to these other places in local because they show actual content about these places – not pages of search results. They serve as destinations. That’s a key thing. If you’re a shopping search engine, and you have a great page about a particular product, agreed – that’s a good destination that Google might want to list. But if you’re only offering pages of search results, that’s less compelling.

    MarkGT: The three main companies involved in the dispute are indeed search engines. In fact, if they weren’t, the argument they put forth would be less compelling. They’re suggesting that Google has acted against them in some fashion because it seems them as competitive search engines. In addition, it’s not like you can’t find them in Google. You can. But you might not get them for all the searches they feel they should come up for.

    Humayu: No, the article starts with sarcasm to make the point that this is not what I think should happen.

  • kangsu

    @Danny Sullivan, “With Microsoft, part of it was due to, if I recall right, the idea that Microsoft itself had unfairly gained dominance with its operating system”.

    That’s not the case. The issue has always been what has MS done after they had the monopoly. There’s very little in the way of antitrust legislation before you have a monopoly.

    “But if you’re only offering pages of search results, that’s less compelling.”

    I agree. But my understanding is that this case is about Google hiding destinations, not pages of search results (no one can even make the claim that they should listed as people generally don’t link to them).

  • MarkGT

    @Danny Sullivan, I suggest you read Foundem’s side of things here: http://www.searchneutrality.org/

    They are not saying Google sees them as a competing search engine – but that they offer services (such as price comparison) that Google is starting to compete with.

    And they specifically state that they are not a keyword based search engine, and that nobody is asking search engines to list other search engines results.

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