The Gulliver Problem

Our collective search roost is owned and pretty much ruled by Google. We mere acolytes have to hope that the Google gods treat us well for being well behaved. Certainly in the US although there have been hearings on their monopoly I’d say the consensus is that nobody has to use Google and if you don’t like them or their product use Duck Duck Go, Bing or some such. In other parts of the world they have a more robust attitude. As a Brit I’m certainly familiar with the more managed business climate which prevails in the UK/EU world. In that just because you have achieved market dominance doesn’t mean that you can exploit it ruthlessly to the exclusion of potential competitors. That “it’s not fair” climate has led to a rash of pending complaints against Google in the UK, the EU and further afield spots like Brazil and India. There seems to be a growing consensus that Google is stacking the deck in favor of its own products and services and in lands where the state has a tougher hand in the game than the US this stuff is frowned upon. The key question is whether these suits typically filled by tiny search companies seeking to tie the giant down will have any meaningful impact in the long term.

The complaint is essentially two fold, first that Google is favoring its own products and thus excluding competitors and that they aren’t labeling their own results as being from their own properties. The first complaint is tough to define and police. In many cases Google claims that they may exclude or play down results from a particular provider because the results offered by that provider are poor quality of overly loaded with ads. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but it clearly goes beyond that. For example the query “Hotel New Orleans” yields a good array of hotels and sources of hotels, including results from their own hotel product right at the top of the results. It’s also labeled ‘sponsored.’ What’s more interesting is that Orbitz is dead last on page one and I couldn’t find anything from Kayak or Hotwire in the organic results on the first five pages. I did find them well represented in the paid ads.

Google could go a long way to at-least pacifying some of these complaints by simply flagging content from their own properties as such in the results set. It’s unlikely they will be able to stop the onslaught from the search Lilliputians entirely by better disclosure but it may help. The question of where this or that particular source of third party content should rank is much trickier, and one that I have to imagine Google doesn’t want decided by EU Mandarins, that issue is likely to get bogged down in the courts for many years to come.

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