Travel Search Coalition Seeks To Pressure Google On Its Search Practices

There’s no doubt that Google plays a big role in helping people to find what they’re looking for on the web every day — but is it trying to manipulate you to favor its own economic interests?

A coalition of specialized search engines and Microsoft are launching a new online campaign to convince you that it is.The group, named FairSearch, has created a new cartoon campaign that encapsulates its members’ core complaints against Google.

The coalition’s charges are sweeping. Its members accuse Google of deceiving its users with unclearly-labeled search results — thereby fooling them into thinking that the search results they get are ‘organic’ when they’re in fact placed-up high by Google; manipulating its search results to the detriment of competitors such as themselves; acquiring companies that it perceives as competitive threats; stealing content from other businesses by excerpting bits of text without authorization, and treating advertisers and partners unfairly.

The group has brought its concerns to the Federal Trade Commission, which launched an investigation into Google’s business practices mid-June.

“The coalition has raised very specific concerns about Google’s business practices and abuse of its dominant position to the detriment of consumers, competition and innovation,” said Ben Hammer, a FairSearch spokesman and director of public affairs firm Glover Park.

“The members are saying, look into those, and if antitrust authorities find Google is acting in ways that violate the law, devise specific remedies to put a stop to it.”

Following a consistent trend of market domination in recent years, Google enjoyed a 65 percent share of the 18.7 billion searches conducted by Americans in June, with Yahoo following with 16 percent, and Microsoft with 14 percent.

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Google has for its part set up a page attempting to refute all of the claims, with pages of supporting quotes from pundits and the press.

On Sunday, Google also posted an additional detailed rebuttal on its blog — with its own barrage of selective statistics.

With its virally-intended video and automated tool on its web site that enables people to shoot off pre-written letters to their members of Congress about this issue, FairSearch clearly hopes to build up support for its case in Congress in order to bring more pressure to bear on the FTC.

While some of FairSearch’s allegations appear straightforward on their face, the complex realities of the way people search for information online makes this issue a real head-scratcher.

For its part, FairSearch is attempting to boil all the issues that it thinks you should care about down to a one-minute cartoon, which portrays the online world as “Searchville,” a small town dominated by one abusive company: Google.

“The goal of Searchville is to reach a broader audience in a fun, creative and more accessible way about concerns FairSearch has been raising with those focused on whether Google’s practices harm consumers, competition and innovation,” said Hammer.

One of the group’s major complaints is that Google places pages that it has created itself at the top of its page at the expense of competitors.

To understand the coalition’s complaint, search for “New York hotels,” on Google for example. You’ll see that the first three results are in a yellow box and clearly labeled as ads.

But the next seven results are listings under a heading called “Places for Hotels near New York, NY,” with links to information about specific hotels. Taken together, the ads and the pinpointed listings take up three quarters of a user’s landing page.

Hammer asserts that most web surfers don’t realize that “Places” listings are sponsored.

This is especially egregious, the coalition asserts, pointing to a statistic from 2009 that suggests that almost 90 percent of online traffic flows through to the first three search results on Google.

Given that Google is the dominant search engine online, and that FairSearch’s members include TripAdvisor, Hotwire, Kayak, Expedia and other online travel search companies whose business is to help travelers to find places to stay and eat out on their vacations, it’s understandable why they would be steamed.

As TechCrunch Co-Editor Erick Schonfeld wrote in a post blasting Google in December:

“No wonder other SEO-friendly local listings and reviews sites such as Citysearch, TripAdvisor, and Yelp are up in arms about this favoritism. They are being muscled out of their previous cosy spots by the search engine which makes all the rules.”

Hammer says that this extends to other markets like mortgages and online comparison shopping. And a December Wall Street Journal story notes that members of other fields such as health are watching Google’s moves closely.

But a closer look at the listings show that Google’s “Places” pages often contain clustered search results around a place that include links to TripAdvisor and other sites.

Carter Maslan, a director of product management at Google explained its “Places” project in a blog post:

“When someone searches for a place on Google, we still provide the usual web results linking to great sites; we simply organize those results around places to make it much faster to find what you’re looking for.”

And in its Sunday posting, Google bolsters that with some statistics about the growth in the volume of traffic that it sends to travel and restaurant review sites:

As of March 2011, Google sent approximately 44 million clicks per month to Yelp; 36 million clicks per month to TripAdvisor; and 13 million clicks per month to Citysearch.

Comparing February 2010 to February 2011, Yelp saw a 63% growth in referral traffic from Google, TripAdvisor a 9% year-over-year growth, and Citysearch a 5% year-over-year growth.

FairSearch’s complaints, and separate calls from other interested parties for ‘search neutrality,’ have been met with skepticism from some quarters in the past simply because Google’s market dominance is a result of its users habits. After all, as Google has always said, competition is only one click away.

Moreover, member Foundem’s complaints about being unfairly penalized by Google have historically been met with an arched eyebrow by search engine marketing experts. They say that the site doesn’t follow some of the most basic search engine optimization advice from Google, which is designed to rank useful information high up and obscure spammy link farms.

Others, like the well-known search engine expert Danny Sullivan of Search Engineland, ridicule the idea of creating a Bureau of Search Neutrality, in order to ensure that Google is being honest.

“Google’s offered more than web search for a very long time,” he noted in a 2010 column.

He continued:

“It is a search company. It is supposed to offer search products. It makes no sense to expect those search products to be merely listing web pages. If people are doing shopping searches on Google, it should evolve its product to have a specialized shopping tool. That’s what its users want.

Sure, that might hurt other shopping sites out there. Or, it might not, if they offer a better shopping search than Google. But it’s a ridiculous argument that Google should somehow send every shopping query out to another shopping search engine.”

Nevertheless, the FTC’s investigation of Google is particularly intriguing at this juncture because of the presence of Columbia University law scholar Tim Wu, who recently published a book about technology, the internet and competition called “The Master Switch, The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.”

As The Wall Street Journal noted in February, Wu has been extremely influential in the high-tech economy with his regulatory proposals to protect innovation.

In 2006, the Federal Communications Commission asked Wu to draft the first-ever net neutrality rules attached as a condition to AT&T’s merger with Bell South. In 2007, it adopted his idea to make the winning bidders for a piece of the wireless spectrum allow the usage of any devices on their networks.

In November, the WSJ reported, Wu said that Google as it is now reminded him of AT&T in the 1920s.

After a protracted antitrust battle, AT&T eventually broke up in 1984.

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