Google search goes under EU antitrust microscope

Google logoThe European Commission announced Tuesday that it has opened a formal antitrust investigation into allegations that Google unfairly gives preference to its own services over that of competing vertical search services in search results. The investigation was sparked by complaints from other search service providers that Google ranks their results much lower in both unpaid and paid results rankings, and uses its overarching dominance in online search to plug its own services instead.

The EC plans to look into a number of confounding factors that it believes could result in anticompetitive behavior. One is how Google ranks its own vertical search services, such as price comparisons, against that of competing services. Another is how Google assigns "Quality Scores" to services that pay for sponsored search results—companies that provide these services allege that Google has lowered their Quality Score when Google has its own competing service.

Beyond these factors, the Commission will also investigate whether or not Google restricts advertisers from placing certain types of competing ads on their own websites, and whether or not Google places restrictions on exporting advertising campaign data for use with competing ad platforms. Both actions would limit competition in violation of EU regulations.

Google has responded to the allegations, noting that its goal is to serve users' needs first over that of other websites. "It may seem obvious, but people sometimes forget this—not every website can come out on top, or even appear on the first page of our results, so there will almost always be website owners who are unhappy about their rankings," wrote Google SVP Susan Wojcicki and VP Udi Manber on the company's European Public Policy Blog.

The allegations of anticompetitive behavior come as Google has acquired a large array of online services in the last couple of years. Since the company holds around three-quarters of the online search and online advertising markets, it is relatively easy to leverage that dominance to promote its other services over the competition. Those same concerns were brought to the fore when Google announced it was buying airline ticketing information software company ITA earlier this year. The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice are reportedly mulling over investigating the antitrust implications of the acquisition amid pressure from a coalition of online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity.

"The European Commission's announcement of a formal antitrust probe, looking into allegations that Google abuses its dominance in search to favor its own services and lower competitors' search result rankings, underscores why the coalition is urging the Justice Department to challenge Google's proposed acquisition of ITA Software to protect consumers and competition in the online travel market," Tom Barnett, counsel for Expedia, said in a statement.

Tags: Google, Google+

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