The specter of “search neutrality” raises its head again

Every few months, it seems, a hue and cry emerges from somewhere about how Google is a monopoly and is being unfair to competitors, either by promoting its own services in search results or penalizing others, or both. The latest venue for this criticism is the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, where the owner of a comparison-shopping service has accused Google of unfair practices. The response from Google senior engineer Amit Singhal reiterates the defences that the company routinely offers in these cases, and there is much truth to them — but it should be noted that Google’s own behavior increasingly invites this kind of criticism.
The critic in this case, Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz, runs a shopping site that offers results targeted to specific searches (much as Google itself does) and argues that Google’s monopoly position in search provides it with an unfair stick with which to beat companies such as his. He claims that the search giant routinely makes changes to its algorithms in a deliberate attempt to penalize competitors, instead of providing an “unbiased” result the way it used to. While he doesn’t use the term, other critics have made similar charges and said that Google should be forced to support “search neutrality” — the idea that search should be protected in the same way net neutrality protects the open internet. Says Katz:

The company has used its position to bend the rules to help maintain its online supremacy, including the use of sophisticated algorithms weighted in favor of its own products and services at the expense of search results that are truly most relevant.

Critics want Google to provide “unbiased” results

Katz’s charges are fundamentally identical to those lobbed at Google by a number of other competitors, including a group of European companies such as Foundem (another comparison shopping site), who accused the company of what they allege are unfair and anti-competitive practices. Google has also been the subject of more than one Wall Street Journal opinion piece complaining about its behavior — the last one was from Yelp founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, who argued that Google was being unfair by scraping results from his recommendation service, charges he also made in front of a congressional subcommittee looking into Google’s conduct.
In part because of complaints like those from Foundem (and Microsoft), the European Union is currently investigating Google for anti-competitive practices, and Katz’s op-ed is pointedly directed towards Joaquin Almunia, the EU competition commissioner who has already said he wants Google to change the way it operates — including, presumably, de-emphasizing its own services in search results.

In his response on the Google blog, Singhal makes repeated references to the fact that Google users are not forced to use the search engine in any way, and are free to use Microsoft’s Bing or any other alternative such as DuckDuckGo, if they prefer the results they get there to Google’s. As he puts it: “The great thing about the openness of the Internet is that if users don’t find our results relevant and useful, they can easily navigate to Nextag, Amazon, Yelp, Bing or any other website.” In another defence of Google, Tom Lenard of the Technology Policy Institute says that the remedies Nexttag’s CEO suggests — including having Google reveal its algorithms and submit to some kind of auditing of the neutrality of its results — would effectively cripple any kind of innovation at the company:

Perhaps Mr. Katz would like a forum where Nextag could express its views on Google’s algorithm changes before they are implemented. That would certainly speed innovation along.

Do Google’s practices harm consumers?

As we’ve pointed out before, whether Google is a monopoly or not isn’t really relevant in the context of U.S. competition law. The only question that matters to regulators (including the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department, who are currently involved in an inquiry into Google’s practices) is whether that monopoly was obtained through illegal means, and whether the company in question uses its monoppoly in ways that damage the marketplace. Unfortunately for Katz, the important question is not whether competitors are harmed by these practices, but whether consumers are.
But while Singhal is right that consumers can go elsewhere to search, and Lenard is also right when he describes how the application of something like “search neutrality” would impair Google’s right to function as a business — and effectively transform it into a government-regulated search utility — it’s also true that Google’s own recent behavior has given anti-competition critics and regulators more ammunition against it. That doesn’t make those criticisms accurate, but it doesn’t help either.

In particular, the “Search Plus Your World” features that the web giant launched earlier this year drew some valid criticism for distorting Google’s results in a way that was solely designed to promote its own social network, Google+. Although the company claims — as Singhal does repeatedly in his post — that all it cares about is providing high-quality search results for users, Search Plus Your World doesn’t do that. In fact, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land and others have shown that the results are arguably worse, by any objective standard. That’s like giving a hand grenade to critics and daring them to pull the pin.
And while Katz is not correct when he says that Google now includes results in its search that are there only because someone has paid to put them there, it is true that the company has started displaying sponsored links at the top of the search page for certain shopping categories — and these links are determined by who pays Google the most for the privilege. As Sullivan pointed out, this kind of paid inclusion is exactly the sort of thing that Google railed at when it was going public in 2004, and promised never to do.
So yes, Google has a point — but unfortunately for the search giant, its critics have a point too about some of the company’s practices, and how it is putting a thumb on the scales in favor of its own properties. Enforcing some governmental version of “search neutrality” is not the solution to any of these criticisms, but with its recent behavior, Google is making the case harder to disprove rather than easier.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Stefan