In search of Google’s dark side
The Federal Trade Commission Thursday dropped a two-year investigation into allegations that Google was gaming search results to drive traffic to its own sites. In a press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz allowed that the charges came from a staggering number of Google’s competitors, and at face value they are plausible: Google essentially controls search with something like 70 percent of the market share and, like any company with near monopoly power, might be tempted to use that advantage to slyly divert traffic away from competitors. But in a unanimous vote all five FTC commissioners agreed there was nothing to see here.
Allegations of search bias strike at the heart of what Google purports to be: an honest curator of what’s available on the web. If the FTC ruled that Google was even a little dishonest, it could have altered the public perception of the company. It might have even been something akin to an Arthur Andersen moment.
The ruling could conceivably embolden Google to push the envelope. And it certainly makes it tougher for competitors to weaken the search giant on penalties rather than fight on what the FTC has now declared is a level playing field.
But the ruling really could not have gone any other way — not only because there’s scant evidence to support Google chicanery but because the idea that Google would use its advantage so heavy-handedly just doesn’t bear up under any scrutiny.
Google, unlike some other tech companies, doesn’t thrive by luring customers into a trap in a walled garden. Its business depends on the web being a vast meadow, infinite in all directions. Google’s properties aren’t revenue plays but building blocks intended to create something quite unusual: A company that you utterly depend on but can live without, and walk away from anytime whole.
To accept that Google would mess around with search for some marginal gain means accepting that it’s interested in the short money that comes from daily deals, Zagat reviews, YouTube ads and the like instead of the big money of being the first word in search.
It’s not as if Google has a history of “get out of jail free” passes from an indifferent or feckless FTC. The agency last year extracted token fines after finding that Google intentionally bypassed privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser. Two years ago it found that Google had used “deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises” with the rollout of (ultimately-doomed) social network Buzz when most tech writers thought the FTC was making a mountain out of a molehill. No fine that time, but Google was put on what amounts to 20 years of probation.
Every company does evil, to some degree, even one whose unofficial (and easily mocked) mantra is Don’t Be Evil. Business is business, after all. Indeed, the FTC did extract one concession from Google on a separate matter: The company agreed to license patents from newly-acquired Motorola Mobility on reasonable terms.
But a dark side to Google’s premiere product, search, would be a whole ‘nother smoke. Whatever services Google also provides — maps, restaurant recommendations, local information, daily deals — its core business depends on being a reliable gateway to the entire web. And the bigger the better.
While it might have a commanding lead, Google is hardly the only search engine. A pattern of results at odds with what Bing and Yahoo and a host of smaller players yield could not possibly escape notice. Google’s detractors, private watchdogs and the tech press will certainly continue to be on the lookout for Google shenanigans.
And anybody can do it. If you search Google for “maps,” Google Maps is first. But search Google for a street address and you’re just as likely to be directed to AOL’s MapQuest. Search “stocks” and Yahoo Finance is higher than Google’s site. Search a stock symbol — like “FB” — and you get a quote and a chart and even-handed links to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s finance sites.
How Google’s algorithm works is a secret, of course, but Google insists the calculation is based on what amount to citations — how many independent links there are to one site versus another. Its leadership role — and entire business — depends on that. To favor its products over another threatens all of its products. Favoritism, at least in theory, has no place in Google’s bucolic meadow.
PHOTO: REUTERS/Mark Blinch