Data Show Google Abuses Search Role, Group Contends

Thu, Jun 3, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Consumer Watchdog continues to push its case that Google Inc.’s behavior necessitates antitrust scrutiny, releasing a report Wednesday that alleges that the company is abusing its dominance in online search to direct users to its own services.

    The study, which will be sent to U.S. and European antitrust regulators, cites online traffic data that the Santa Monica group claims shows the Mountain View Internet giant seized large portions of market share in areas like online maps, video and comparison shopping after its search engine began highlighting links to its products in results.

    Google called the report’s methodology and premise flawed and said its practices are designed to benefit users.

    “Our goal is to give users the info they’re seeking as quickly as possible,” a spokesman said in a statement. “Sometimes that means showing a map, a streaming audio link, or an answer to a question at the top of the page if we think that’s what users want. We strive to deliver what we think is the most relevant result from a variety of content types, and if we’re not giving users the information they want then other sources of information are always one click away.”

    Google doubled its market share in online video to nearly 80 percent since 2007, the year in which the company began returning high or prominent links to videos from its YouTube subsidiary in search results, according to the report by Consumer Watchdog’s Inside Google project.

    The study also concluded that since the company began putting Google Maps at the top of results for local searches, market share for onetime leader MapQuest has dropped from about 57 percent to around 32 percent. Meanwhile, Google now controls about 51 percent of the market.

    Courts have held that companies hold monopoly power when they control 70 to 80 percent of the market, the study notes. Antitrust law says that building a monopoly through fair competition isn’t illegal, but using that dominance to create additional monopolies can be.

    “The data shows that Google has established a Microsoft-like monopoly in some key areas of the Web,” says the report, which relies on three years of online traffic data for 100 popular Web sites from Experian Hitwise.

    To be clear, however, all the data show is that Google won market share in these areas starting around 2007. Consumer Watchdog is arguing it occurred because Google started providing conspicuous links to its services in search results, but the data don’t speak to causality.

    Google might have gained market share simply by providing products that people liked more than those offered by competitors.

    Indeed, the Google spokesman attributed YouTube’s success to the site’s “innovation and improvement, while other video sites failed to innovate as quickly.”

    Similarly, he said MapQuest’s decline could be attributed to the fact it didn’t add features like Street View and bike directions, while Google did.

    The spokesman added that the report ignores examples that contradict its premise, including the fact that Google Finance lags Yahoo Finance in popularity, even though a search for a ticker symbol in Google pops up links to the former.

    The goal of Inside Google and its namesake Web site is to draw attention to Google’s growing dominance and privacy practices, Consumer Watchdog says. The group, which has been an outspoken critic of the company and called on the Justice Department to launch an antitrust investigation, has received funding for its work related to Google’s privacy practices from the Rose Foundation of Oakland.

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