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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 911

Google Gets Away with Anti-trust Charge – for now!

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

google_ads.gifGoogle, the most popular search engine on the planet, managed to walk away with a slap on the wrist, when the Federal Trade Commission – FTC – in the United States ruled on Thursday that the former did not manipulate the search results while harming the consumers.

The announcement came after the end of a 19-months investigation into the business practices of the search engine giant, which, its rivals brand as an aggressive monopoly - hell bent on abusing its dominant position.

According to FTC, they couldn’t find enough evidence to support the charge that Google unfairly favours its own services over those of its rivals when search results are displayed on Google. Some may agree with that; but Google’s rivals certainly don’t. FairSearch, a group whose members include rival Microsoft, for instance, did very little to hide its frustration: “the FTC's inaction on the core question of search bias will only embolden Google to act more aggressively to misuse its monopoly power to harm other innovators."

Beth Wilkinson, a lawyer hired by the FTC, admitted that Google took aggressive steps to gain advantage over rival search providers. "However, the FTC's mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors," she said in the same breath. "The conclusion is clear: Google's services are good for users and good for competition," declared David Drummond, victorious Google's top lawyer after the ruling.

Despite the finding, which turned out to be in Google’s favour, Google’s troubles are far from over: Google is under investigation on the same charge by no fewer than three American states and the European Commission. It remains to be seen whether the rulings from the latter may converge to the same position taken by the FTC in this regard, although odds against it appear to be relatively high.

In order to see at first hand who actually tells the truth for journalistic purposes from an independent consumer’s point of view – although, I know who does – I typed ‘Hotels near Hyde Park in London’ into the search box of Google search page. The first three results that I got were as follows: Hyde Park Hotels – lastminute.com; Hotels in Hyde Park – booking.com; London hotels on Google – google.co.uk/hotels.

The first two were at the top with a questionably-distinct background – and they were paid advertisements by the two big players in the hotel and travel trade. In short, they got to the top position by paying for their ads – perhaps, quite handsomely – as even advertisers have to compete with each other in a digital auction to reach the apex; the more financially sound the company, the more likely it wins the bid.

Since consumers have been taken for a ride by big-spending advertisers for so long, users do not necessarily embrace the poorly-camouflaged paid advertisements at the top. Instead, they often click on the first few that appear against the white background – the normal search results.

In my search, it was Google itself which came up first with its own hotel booking arm. This is one twitch that catapulted Google into the comfortably-agile hands of the regulators, although, as far as my own experience is concerned it is not a problem for me, because it was a rather pleasant experience: it is more reliable; more relevant; it takes you to the hotel of your choice through a ‘path of least resistance ’while giving clear information in the shortest possible time; and above all, it is more intuitive. In short, I wouldn’t make a complaint to any regulator – here in the UK or US - about Google landing at the top, when I searched for a hotel in Hyde Park in London, England.

Google, however, is not always right when displaying results even if they do not involve commercial aspects, thanks to the crafty manipulation of SEO – Search Engine Optimization – by web site developers. Although, Google claims that its Web Crawler, popularly known as Spider, is ‘intelligent’ enough to bring in the most relevant results while scanning billions of web pages in its index, the reality is far from it; and, despite Google’s best efforts, there is no sign of the tendency getting a turn for the better.

Google’s own guidelines for web developers - how to earn a favorable rank, Known as Page Rank, by the search giant – have led to the birth of an army of ‘experts’ who are willing to advise the web site owners how to conquer the web. For a sky-high fee, they are prepared to move heaven and hell to achieve their objective at the expense of fair search.

Having known the gravity of the problem – and the damage, of course - Google threatened the unscrupulous site owners with the removal from Google index, while insisting that what matters is the contents of the web page, not any elaborate technical gimmicks. Anyone, who looks up anything other than porn – as my fellow Sri Lankan compatriots found out last week - knows some search results are frustratingly irrelevant; this, could damage brand Google in the long run.

Google promised the antitrust regulators that it would come clean with an action plan, which, in theory, gives other advertisers – especially those who are with their own search platforms – a level playing field. When the advertising revenue is in steady decline, how Google is going to do that is anyone’s guess. Because, from our childhood experiences we know that a spider is not a creature, famous for walking along a straight line, even if Google claims that its virtual pet is supported by the best search algorithm on the planet.

- Asian Tribune -

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