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FTC Will Probe Google’s Search Update

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Fri, Jan 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm

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FTC Will Probe Google’s Search Update

Google’s latest change to its search engine, dubbed “Search plus Your World” apparently has drawn the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission because of antitrust concerns, according to Bloomberg News.

I’d say the agency, already investigating the Internet giant’s business practices, was correct to add Google’s latest search changes to the list of its concerns.  As we’ve shown in the past, Google clearly favors its own properties in universal search results.  The latest change in search appears to be yet another way Google unfairly favors its own properties, in this case its new social network, Google+.

Bloomberg News Reporters Sara Forden and Brian Womack broke the latest news about the FTC Friday afternoon:

“The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is expanding its antitrust probe of Google Inc. (GOOG)the world’s most popular search engine, to include scrutiny of its new Google+ social networking service, according to two people familiar with the situation.

“The competition issues raised by Google+ go to the heart of the FTC’s investigation into whether the company is giving preference to its own services and whether that practice violates antitrust laws, said the people, who declined to be identified because the investigation isn’t public.”

In case you missed it, Google launched “Search, plus Your World” on Tuesday.  If you are logged into a Google account and enter a search, Google returns relevant results from content posted by you and your friends on Google+, the company’s new social network.  The Google+ data is interspersed into results from across the web.  You can click to opt out of this personalized search and see only the traditional results.  Another click displays only results from Google+.

Google Fellow Amit Singhal gave an example of how it works in a blog post announcing the new feature. He explained how as a boy his favorite fruit was something called the Chikoo.  A few years ago, he wrote, his family got a puppy and named it Chikoo. He has shared a number of photos of the dog with friends. Now with Search plus Your World, when Singhal enters the query “Chikoo” his results page returns both photos of the fruit and his dog.

Frankly, I’ve been trying to get my head around the implications of this new feature all week.   On the plus side, it only works if you log into a Google account.  On the negative side is the fact that once you do sign in, you get personalized search by default. You can opt out. The better choice would be to make the new feature opt-in.  You would have to turn  it on if you want it.

The antitrust issues arise because of the way Google treats the results from its own social network.  It searches the posts of your friends on Google+, but doesn’t do the same for Facebook or Twitter.
Some have suggested this in itself is anti-competitive.  It might well be if the other networks wanted their data searched. The fact of the matter is that neither Facebook nor Twitter allow Google access to “crawl” that data.  Twitter used to give Google access, but the deal fell apart over the summer.

Microsoft’s Bing does search Tweets and, according to All Things Digital,  may be paying $30 million for the rights. It does seem wrongheaded to argue that Google must search the content of other social networks when they won’t provide access.

But there still is a serious antitrust issue: When you enter a name into Google’s search bar, if the person is on Google+, their picture and a link to their profile is auto-suggested. Try it with Eric Schmidt or Britney Spears.  Click on it and you get the Google+ profile at the top of your results.
This happens whether you are logged into a Google account or not.  If you are logged in, Search plus Your World also seeks results from content inside the Google+ network.  Logged in or not, the auto-suggest feature suggests Google+ profiles when the name matches a Google+ user. Clearly the feature is designed to drive users to Google+.

Now while we can’t really expect Google to search posts on Facebook or Twitter when neither gives access to that content, we should insist that Goole give the same sort of treatment to the social network pages that are part of the public web.

Both Facebook and Twitter have pages that are analogous to Google profiles and are available on the public web. They don’t get the same preferential treatment as Google profiles.

As John Battelle points out in his Searchblog, Google used to claim its results were unbiased.  He quotes from the company’s original letter to shareholders in 2004, “Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.”

It used to be that Google said they wanted users to get off their site and on to the site they were seeking as quickly as possible. Naturally there was a hope that they would frequently choose to click on an ad to get there.

Those days are long gone. Everything Google is doing now is attempt to keep you on its sites as long as possible so it can gather as much information about you as possible. Look at the menu bar that drops down to offer links to many Google properties and services when you go to Google’s recently redesigned homepage for a simple search.

And, it’s  quite clear that Google is favoring its own properties in search results. Google plus Your World is simply the latest example. That’s one of the reasons why the Internet giant is under well deserved scrutiny by the European Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and at least six states attorneys general for possible antitrust violations

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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