Competition googly may prove tricky for Google

By Manisha Singh and Priya Anuragini, LexOrbis
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For internet users of today, Google is a synonym for web search. Such is the clout of the company that users don’t search for information, they google it. However, for the past few years the search engine giant has been grappling with anti-competitive charges in different jurisdictions and its predicament has taken a turn for the worse with the European Union Competition Commission recording the preliminary finding that the US-based web search company has abused its dominant position in the market for general internet search services.

Manisha Singh
Manisha Singh

Earlier, Google was also fined by India’s competition regulator for being uncooperative during investigation into complaints by Consim Info and Consumer Unity and Trust Society. While Google has some time to respond and allay the concerns of competition regulators, the crackdown on the company is already being seen as an opening for new players to emerge just as Google came up when Microsoft was busy negotiating competition charges.

Charges against Google

At the heart of competition complaints against Google is an attempt to ensure online search neutrality and objectivity, keeping in view the crucial role that search engines play in locating the relevant information from the vast mountain of information available online. Horizontal search using generic search queries is usually the first level of online consumer search and search results are displayed after ranking all the relevant websites in order of relevance. The search engine results page (SERP) gives links to these websites in decreasing order of relevance. Clearly, ranking on the SERP plays a crucial role in steering traffic to any website as almost 90% of clicks are on websites listed on the first page of the SERP.

Instead of general search, some search platforms focus only on particular subject matter such as books, news, information, etc., and are tailored to address specific vertical queries. While there are a lot of search engines that exclusively provide vertical search services, Google, although primarily a horizontal search engine, also provides vertical search services such as Google Shopping, Google News, Google Maps, etc., and thus has the opportunity to integrate vertical services with its immensely popular horizontal services.

However if a vertical search platform is displayed when a horizontal query is keyed in, it not only increases the number of visits to the platform but is also detrimental to other similarly placed vertical search platforms. For instance, if “books” is the search query on Google and the SERP displays Google Books as the first link, it will take the users to a specific vertical platform when it may not even be the most relevant result for the user or the best vertical search engine for books, thus discriminating against other such vertical search engines.

Priya Anuragini
Priya Anuragini

And this precisely is the charge against Google. It has been alleged that Google has distorted the search results to push its vertical services to the top of horizontal search results at the expense of similarly placed competing vertical services. Considering Google’s commanding dominance in horizontal search, this integration of horizontal and vertical search may exclude or at least harm competitors in the vertical search business.

Google has also been under the scanner for engaging in discriminatory practices in online search advertising. Google’s advertisement programme, done through Google AdWords, enables advertisers to choose heavily searched terms as keywords to trigger advertisement in the “sponsored links” ad area.

The programme allows advertisers to bid even for those keywords which are the trademarks of their business competitors. In fact, Google’s “keyword suggestion tool” aids advertisers in choosing such AdWords by suggesting keywords, trademarked or otherwise, that can be purchased by the advertisers so that links to their websites appear at as many locations as possible.

Clearly, this has not gone down well with trademark owners, who have attacked Google for creating confusion and aiding deception and diversion of business traffic especially because Google’s trademark policy unequivocally states that Google will not investigate or restrict the use of trademark terms in keywords, even if a trademark complaint is received. The bidding process for keywords is also alleged to be unfair and opaque.

While these charges lie at the core of the ongoing competition tirade against Google, numerous other complaints against Google are currently being investigated. Apart from internet search, Google’s conduct in relation to its commonly used open-source mobile operating system, Android, is also under scrutiny. Getting entangled in the competition web may prove to be perilous for Google but it is important to safeguard the interests of other stakeholders. After all, a website’s ranking is totally dependent on search engines and any kind of search bias or manipulation by the search engines, especially when the search engine enjoys as much dominance as Google, would be detrimental to both the users and industry players.

Manisha Singh is a founding partner of LexOrbis, where Priya Anuragini is an associate.

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