Just Google It?

If search engines and search advertisers were playing each other in Hasbro’s Monopoly, Google would definitely have hotels on both Boardwalk and Park Place, according to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staff report. Unfortunately, reality is no board game, and Google has been accused of using anticompetitive tactics to harm both rivals and consumers.

The FTC’s 2012 160-page analysis was intended to remain private but was mistakenly revealed to the public through an open-records request last week. First reported by the Wall Street Journal, the analysis concluded that Google abused its monopoly power by discouraging competition in ways that could have hurt consumers.

The report from the agency’s Bureau of Competition advised that the FTC file a lawsuit against three Google practices in particular. First, the report found that Google was stealing content from competitor websites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon. In one instance, Google used Amazon’s sales rankings to rank its own items. The report also stated that Google went as far as replicating Amazon’s consumer reviews and ratings. When sites like Yelp, TripAdvior and Amazon observed Google’s stealing practices, Google allegedly threatened to remove the companies from appearing in their search results all together.

Next, the report stated that Google broke antitrust law by restricting websites that broadcast its search results from working with competitor search engines such as Bing, Yahoo and Ask. It was additionally reported that Google broke antitrust law when it restricted advertisers from accessing data from Google ad campaigns for ads running on other programs. Finally, the most serious accusation was that the company altered search results to rank its own products and services ahead of its rivals, or even worse, refused to display its rivals’ links.

Ultimately, the FTC voted at the beginning of 2013 to end the investigation after Google arranged to change some of its questionable practices. However, many are now questioning whether or not ending the investigation was the right decision. Typically, the FTC implements the staff’s suggestion but was conflicted in the Google case since a separate report from the economic bureau recommended that no legal action be taken if Google immediately changed its monopolistic practices. Further reasoning for not taking the course of legal action was that Google’s voluntary changes provided consumers with faster relief than would a lawsuit.

Still, no action was taken on how Google ranks and displays search results, so speculation may still exist. Google continues to argue that it’s impossible to have monopoly power when all of its rivals are equally accessible through the Internet, and consumers can choose to utilize the rivals if they please.

With all of the media attention from the uncovering of the FTC report comes a platform for competitors like Yelp, Amazon and TripAdvisor to take a stand. Antitrust authorities in Europe are also keeping an eye on Google’s anticompetitive practices and are undertaking their own investigation. Perhaps the most important consequence of the FTC report release is that consumers may be educated on Google’s monopolistic strategies and take them into consideration before deciding to “just Google it,” especially when it comes to making purchases.

Google Logo in Building43 by Robert Scoble is licensed under CC BY 2.0.