[Décryptage] Antitrust lawsuits: what is Google really risking?
While Google is in the process of negotiating an agreement in Europe that should prevent it from an antitrust lawsuit, it is now on the side of the United States that this lawsuit is coming. Under the influence of Fair Search, a coalition of Google competitors including Microsoft and TripAdvisor, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reportedly set to launch proceedings against Google.
If the end result of these procedures seems unimpressive, compared to the importance they were given at the time, it is without counting the real consequences for Microsoft: years of complex and very expensive battles, which some say played a significant role not only in the deterioration of the image of Microsoft but also in the slowdown of innovation at a pivotal time for the Redmond firm.
The Fair Search campaign highlights many examples of entrepreneurs who have suffered directly from Google’s changes, but Google defends itself by explaining that their goal is to provide a service to consumers, that they do it very well, and that the fate of companies that depend on Google does not matter to him. The question that the FTC will have to answer is therefore that of the benefit for the consumer: is it better for them an omnipotent Google, which answers all its questions, or a multitude of actors fighting for answer him?
What exactly do we blame Google for?
In fact, this is not the first time that Google has had to answer questions from competition regulators, but the difference this time is that for the first time Google is asked about its core business, research, and therefore really big risk.
The two most serious accusations are of competing unfairly with specialized search engines, and of promoting one’s own services in search results.
The first accusation poses a rather complex question: is Google competing unfairly with TripAdvisor by directly offering localized results in Google Maps when you type “restaurant” or is the search engine just doing its job? Google has always presented itself as a global search engine, and criticize it for not referring to another search engine, but rather directly to the results themselves, that seems pretty absurd.
Google has devastated the comparison shopping market with Google Shopping, and its entry into the travel market with Google Plane scares more than one travel agency. From a user perspective, however, what do you want when you go to Google?
Fairsearch claims that Google is playing favoritism by referring to its own specialized search engines rather than competitor’s, but all Google does is organize and present the information it has. If we forbid him to do that, we would have to shut down Google News, Google Images and a whole bunch of other very useful services. From a consumer perspective, that would be a big step backwards.
It is also quite funny to see that Microsoft supports these accusations when Bing does the exact same thing.
Google claims not to promote the upturn of YouTube over Vimeo and Dailymotion or Google+ over Facebook and Twitter. Its own services would be subject to the same SEO algorithm as the others, and it would be, according to Google, only their own qualities that would make them stand out so well in its rankings. This assertion is questioned on all sides, but the accusation cannot be proven as long as Google keeps the secret of its algorithm.
There is also the case of Google Shopping facing all the price comparison and e-commerce sites. If Shopping started out as a simple search engine like any other, today access for sellers has become chargeable, and some like Amazon refuse to proceed to checkout. If there is an abuse of dominance, it is certainly there.
What is Google really risking?
We regularly talk about the dismantling of Google. Google Shopping could become a separate entity from Google Search, and there would be no more economic incentive to work together. Same thing with Google+, Youtube, Gmail, etc… This result is however unlikely both because the US has not really been known for its strict antitrust policy for several years, and because, technically, it would be very complex today to separate increasingly integrated services.
The least damaging scenario for Google, conversely, would be that it is required to clearly indicate when a result has been favored in SEO. Signage, like that which indicates advertisements, would mark that Google has voluntarily favored a given result because it “comes from the house”, in a way. Users probably wouldn’t have much to do with it and everything could go on and on for Google.
More annoying, Google may have to reveal a little of the secret of its algorithms to the authorities. The secrecy surrounding them is much less opaque than it was at one time, with Google regularly publishing SEO best practices, but letting the FTC look in detail under the hood and having to warn it with each change in the algorithm could be more crippling.
The FTC could even force Google to make part of its algorithm public. This is undoubtedly the result that Fair Search hopes for, but it is perhaps the most unacceptable to Google, which would fight fiercely against such an intrusion into its secrets.
Which of these scenarios will come true? Difficult to say as the procedure is likely to be long and complex.