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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Has Google Succumbed to Monopolistic Practices?

A devastating critique suggests the search engine is unfairly favoring its own services.

  • November 21, 2010

When you control 85% of the search market, deciding to put your own services at the top of your search rankings, no matter their popularity or pagerank – what’s known as hard-coding, as opposed to “unbiased” algorithmic search results – constitutes monopolistic practices. A straightforward analysis of Google’s search results conducted by Ben Edelman, a professor at Harvard Business School, suggests this is exactly what the search giant is doing.

(cc) Danny Sullivan

As reported by The Register, Edelman explores a feature of that has been creeping into search results ever since 2007: search for a stock symbol, say “CSCO”, and the first thing that pops up is a graph of the company’s recent stock price. This is a handy feature, and undeniably an enhancement to the usual Google experience; without it, Google would be falling behind other search engines that offer “instant” results, such as Duck Duck Go.

But a funny thing happened on the way to delivering instant gratification to Google’s users – as of this writing, the first result that pops up when you search for “CSCO” is a link to Google Finance, even though Google Finance is a significantly less popular service than, say, Yahoo Finance, which is second in the results.

Adding a character to the stock symbol, like a comma, yields a search that more closely resembles the results that Google used to offer up – purely algorithmic results in which Yahoo Finance comes out on top.

In other words, Google has some ‘splaining to do. One of the criteria for monopolistic practices that got Microsoft busted was its use of the Windows monopoly to foist other software onto users, such as the Internet Explorer web browser. The bottom line is that courts frown on a business that uses its core monopoly to leverage other, possibly inferior services on the consumer. Such behavior is, by definition, anti-competitive.

Google argues that its so-called “universal results,” the ones that appear at the top of searches for certain terms, are simply an answer to “what users want”. That is, instant results that either don’t require a clickthrough or visually facilitate navigation of search results. In 2007, reports Edelman, vice president of search Marissa Mayer said, on tape, “When we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair, right?”

“We do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first…That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it’s the first link,” she added.

Google search rankings exhibit similar behavior for all listed topics in Google Health, placing these results above all other for searches for, for example, “acne.”

These results are especially relevant given that Google is being sued for antitrust behavior in Europe. If these cases should force Google to reveal that it is in fact hard-coding links to its own services at the top of search results for terms spanning all of the services that Google offers, it would constitute damning evidence of behavior that the Federal Trade Commission has ruled, in analogous cases, constitutes monopolistic practices requiring fines or worse.

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