In this corner is Google, about to make “major changes” to its algorithm and presentation of search results according to a much-discussed article in the Wall Street Journal. In the other are Google’s critics who now scrutinize and critique the company’s every move. The WSJ-Google article speaks about new innovations to search in an effort to deliver more “semantic” answers (not links). Yet critics will see anti-competitive behavior intended to maintain Google’s dominant position and undermine smaller firms.
FairSearch.org has emerged as one of Google’s most vocal critics. Established in 2010, the entity is effectively an anti-Google lobbying group. It was formed by travel verticals and online travel agencies to oppose Google’s acquisition of software firm ITA.
The membership now includes several non-travel companies. Among them is now TheFind, a shopping search engine, which announced it was joining yesterday.
I reached out to TheFind in email when I saw the press release and asked CEO Siva Kumar for a sense of why the company was joining FairSearch. I also asked what specifically he felt Google was doing that was abusive and how it contrasted or compared with Bing’s behavior.
I received the following response in email:
As search enters a new phase, one defined by social, local and mobile, TheFind has been busy innovating on new products, with a focus specifically on social and social signals from sites like Facebook that have ubiquity. Along with a lot of other innovative companies, we sense a significant opportunity in this next phase. On the other hand, we share the concerns of our coalition partners that the inherent advantages of monopoly in legacy search, left unchecked could be leveraged to create unfair advantages in new fields. We have chosen to join FairSearch now because we believe advocacy is required to ensure that the market conditions that allow for vigorous competition and innovation in this next phase.
Essentially Kumar is arguing that Google could (or will) utilize its dominance to prevent innovative smaller players like TheFind from gaining the kind of visibility and adoption that would otherwise be possible. He said that public advocacy is now required to maintain or “restore balance” to the search marketplace.
Google sees itself as a company in a competitive marketplace. Google’s critics see Google as a “public utility” that needs government regulation to prevent abuse.
One of the phrases in the above quote from TheFind that struck me was “coalition partners.” I can’t hear that phrase without thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Postscript: FairSearch.org spokesman Ben Hammer provided me with the following statement in email:
FairSearch does not take the position you ascribe to critics (which I realize may be a wider term than just the 17 members of our coalition): “Google’s critics see Google as a “public utility” that needs government regulation to prevent abuse.
Rather, our members believe Google is violating antitrust and consumer protection laws, and have laid out the specific practices in question. The coalition advocates for enforcing existing laws that Google is violating, not creating new regulations.
When I used the phrase “public utility” I meant that Google’s critics’ arguments (I’m not talking about FairSearch in particular) imply that the company is a kind of “utility” — a monopoly — that everyone uses and not simply one of several search engines competing with one another.