Technology

The antitrust case against Google is gathering steam

Let’s spend a few minutes today catching up on the antitrust inquiries into Google. There are investigations related to competition underway against most of the biggest tech giants – Apple, Facebook, and Amazon face similar inquiries, and their CEOS are scheduled to join Sundar Pichai for a virtual hearing with the House of Representatives later this month. But there’s reason to believe the case against Google will land the soonest of any of them — in May, the New York Times reported that charges could come “as early as this summer.”

Scrutiny into the company’s business practices has since accelerated. Politico reported last week that California, which sat out an investigation led by 48 attorneys general, is preparing to mount its own inquiry into Google’s competition practices. As Leah Nylen noted in that report: “Alabama is now the only state that is not investigating the company.”

At the same time, reporters are mounting their own investigations of their own, and everywhere they look, they find Google giving preference to its own products over those of its competitors.

In Bloomberg this week, Gerrit De Vynck looked at the company’s decision to ad a fourth ad to the top of search results in 2015. The effect of all those extra paid links has been to reduce organic traffic to many businesses and publishers, making life more difficult for them. These days, when people visit Google, the majority of them get the information they sought from Google itself, and never touch the open web at all. That has strengthened the case of those who argue that the company’s moves, whatever they have brought users in terms of convenience, have harmed competition.

De Vynck notes that Google, like any other company, has to manage the needs and wants of its customers and its businesses. “Users want the best answers,” he writes. “Web developers need eyeballs. Shareholders demand growth.” At the same time, some businesses are now arguing that the mix of extra ads and answers provided directly within Google is eroding the fabric of the web.

De Vynck writes:

Kevin Hickey, chief executive officer of Online Stores Inc., said these changes have forced him to spend more on Google search ads to keep traffic flowing to his e-commerce businesses. More than a decade ago, about two-thirds of Hickey’s Google traffic came from free, or organic, listings. But as Google increased ad slots to the top of results, that mix flipped. Organic results account for about 20% of visitors to his sites now, and he spends about 10% to 15% of his revenue on Google ads. He has raised prices, but his profit margins have shriveled.

“The prices that consumers are paying are now higher because of Google’s business model,” Hickey said.

Google says consumers are simply no longer satisfied with the 10 blue links of days past, and that despite changes it continues to send a firehose of traffic to the open web. A large portion of searches are for commoditized information like weather and sports that hardly differ in their presentation on any one web page; why not just put it all in search results? On the other hand, the idea that Google search has gradually worsened is not new, and for many types of query I find it persuasive. (Search for “shoes” or “furniture” on Google, and then on Pinterest, and tell me which is more useful.)

Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported that Google searches for videos ranked YouTube clips higher than rivals, even when the same clips posted to Facebook, Dailymotion, and other outlets were first posted on those sites, and have many more views. (Google says it does not take into account the number of views a video receives when ranking them in search, which is … weird?)

Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind and John West write:

Engineers at Google have made changes that effectively preference YouTube over other video sources, according to people familiar with the matter. Google executives in recent years made decisions to prioritize YouTube on the first page of search results, in part to drive traffic to YouTube rather than to competitors, and also to give YouTube more leverage in business deals with content providers seeking traffic for their videos, one of those people said. […]

A Google spokeswoman, Lara Levin, said there is no preference given to YouTube or any other video provider in Google search. “Our systems use a number of signals from the web to understand what results people find most relevant and helpful for a given query,” Ms. Levin said. She declined to comment on the specific examples cited in this article.

Why YouTube showed so strongly in this study is a matter of some debate. For example, if you go to your second-favorite search engine (Bing.com, duh) and query the Tasty videos that BuzzFeed made famous on Facebook, the top links are all from YouTube. Presumably this is not the result of Google interference.

On the other hand, Google can and does promote YouTube in many other ways throughout the product; click “Google apps” at the top of your Gmail inbox and you’ll see it right there, for example. Over time, Google helped YouTube become synonymous with video, and so now it may not even seem suspicious that most searches for videos lead you directly to it. “I’d click the YouTube [link] whether it was listed first or seventh on the screen b/c I trust YouTube more than those other sites,” writes one of the commenters on the Journal story. He meant it as an indictment of the Journal’s reporting — “waste of time and resources,” he called it — but I wonder if on some level he isn’t making the reporters’ point for them.

“Our systems use a number of signals from the web to understand what results people find most relevant and helpful for a given query,” Google told me when I asked about the Journal’s report. “To ensure that these signals are used equally and fairly for all sites, we use signals that are not specific to any one site or platform. Therefore, the number of views, likes or comments a video has received on a given platform is not a factor in our ranking systems. Our video ranking systems use signals from all video sources in the same way— there is no preference given to YouTube or any other video provider.”

And yet, despite all those signals, YouTube still turns up the winner more often than not. Google often talks about search results as if they are naturally occurring phenomena, like gravity, rather than the result of editorial decision making. And yet it’s hard to believe that had the Journal reached the opposite conclusion — that Google searches rarely, if ever, turned up YouTube links — that some Google product manager wouldn’t be tasked with fixing it.

The underlying question here is to what extent Google should be given the freedom to present search results as it sees fit, no matter the cost to other businesses. The European Union has fined the company three times over the years for acting in ways it said had harmed competition, most recently for $1.7 billion this year. So far the US government has not formally stated its case. But it’s hard to look at Google search in 2020 and conclude that it has proved conclusively helpful to competition. Whatever signals the company’s algorithms might be taking into account as it ranks search results, it’s somehow always Google that comes out on top.

PUSHBACK
In Monday’s email edition, I said that the United Kingdom has an advertising blackout in the days leading up to the election. That’s not right, as many of you wrote in to point out. One reader put it this way: “Our blackout is on radio and TV only. That means while the polling stations are open on the day of the election, they’re not allowed to broadcast discussions and analysis of election issues.

Other campaigning, including online, is still allowed to happen though. Often, parties hold back a significant chunk of their digital ad spending for the last few days and hours — i.e., you could argue it’s been a way of getting around the broadcast ban.”

A better example for what Facebook is considering might be Australia, which bans broadcasters from running ads from midnight on the Wednesday before polling day to the close of the poll on polling day.