Tag Archives: competition

Extraordinary: the FTC says it is OK for Google to bias search results in its own favour

The most remarkable statement in the report from the US Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of Google is this one:

The FTC concluded that the introduction of Universal Search, as well as additional changes made to Google’s search algorithms – even those that may have had the effect of harming individual competitors – could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google’s product and the experience of its users. It therefore has chosen to close the investigation

In other words, the FTC did not find that there was no bias in Google’s search results. It found that bias is OK if it “improves Google’s product and the experience of its users”, a phrase which is something I would expect to hear from a company’s own public relations team, not from a government report.

It is an extraordinary conclusion and runs counter to normal expectations of what a government body investigating anticompetitive business practices would be likely to support. It does make me wonder if the FTC appreciates the power of Google over which web sites are visited; given the use of the search engine by people such as students and journalists the company has remarkable potential influence over a wide range of human knowledge, as well as the power to make or break a company for which the web is critical either for direct sales or for marketing.

I also wonder what precedent it sets. In other words, can any company justify activities that harm competitors unfairly by claiming that they “improve the experience” of customers?

Update: It looks like the EU may take a stronger line, according to this article in the Guardian. From which I cannot resist posting a screenshot.


Google: a search engine, or affiliate site?

According to my current web stats, 95.6% of those using a search engine to find a post did so using Google. That represents market dominance, and power to make or break a business which depends on web traffic.

Google’s search engine is the best in my experience, but I am increasingly concerned about the quality of the results, which are noticeably worse today than they were in the early days.

Ideally (from the user’s perspective) its search results should be objective as far as possible; for example, it should not favour sites which spend more money advertising with Google, nor should it favour Google’s own web properties above rivals.

I noticed an article in the Guardian stating that this is not the case:

A Google search for credit cards returns with an advert at the top of the screen, far bigger than the rest and bigger than any other website link. Adverts of this size and prominence will attract a high click-through rate. This will prevent searchers going via other affiliate sites or applying directly for a credit card.

I tried it. Here is what I got:


The most prominent results is the one with the images, admittedly marked “sponsored” but in a grey, small font that you could easily miss. This is actually an ad for Google’s own affiliate site for credit cards, just click Apply:


I do not get the same issue with Bing, although I do think the designation of which results are ads is too small:


Still, at Bing has not awarded itself a large ad with images that links to its own affiliate scheme.

Of course I can choose not to use Google. Unfortunately though, businesses cannot choose what search engine their customers or potential customers use to find their sites.

I am one of those who believes regulation should be as light as possible, but considering the power Google currently exerts and the lack of fairness in examples like this, it seems to be that some kind of regulation is needed.

Disclosure: this site uses Adsense, a web advertising scheme operated by Google