A Visit to Google Land The Intransparent Methods of an Internet Giant
Part 2: Why Google Is (No Longer) Objective
The secret of the Google search dates back to the early days of the company -- the PageRank method developed by Brin and Page when they were students at Stanford University. Some experts feel that neutrality was already forfeited back then; the programmers, after all, had to make decisions on how much weight to assign to which factors. Brin and Page chose "link popularity" as a characteristic of a search result. Under this principle, websites that are linked to by many other sites are ranked more highly than sites that are recommended less frequently. This is a constant in Google's top-secret search algorithm, a formula which is constantly being redeveloped and currently takes more than 200 criteria into account, including dwell time and -- a recent edition -- "quality."
For many critics, the real lapse on the question of neutrality began when Google, in the middle of the last decade, began offering new services of its own, from the Gmail email service to Google Maps and the video site YouTube, which it acquired, to the social network Google+. The preferential treatment of these Google products is also at the heart of the EU and FTC complaints about the company.
Shivaun Raff was one of the first people to legally challenge the company on competition grounds. Together with her husband, the London-based computer scientist runs a search website called Foundem. The price comparison site is considered a "vertical search engine," which, in contrast to Google's horizontal overview search, delves deeply into the sites of many providers.
The company suddenly disappeared in June 2006, or at least it seemed that way to the Raffs. Foundem was no longer appearing on the first page of Google search results and was often somewhere beyond page 10. A brutal reality in the world of online shopping is that results that don't appear on the first three pages of a Google search are practically nonexistent. The number of visitors to Foundem plunged and sales collapsed.
What had happened? Google had changed its search algorithm. The Foundem founders filed a complaint, but to no avail. They say that no one was willing to explain to them what exactly had caused the downgrade, or what they could do to be moved back up to the top of the list. Foundem was still getting top billing on other search engines, like Yahoo.
The Digital Wilderness
The couple filed a complaint with Competition Commissioner Almunia in November 2009. It worked. Only a month later, Google apparently reversed the banishment of Foundem, and the price search engine promptly shot back up to the first page of search results.
The Raffs' return from the digital wilderness, however, came only after being strung along by Google for more than 40 months. Their fighting spirit had been awakened. "The whole time, Google claimed that its searches were neutral and behaved as if there were no problems," says Shivaun Raff. "It's as if you were standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory and said: 'People, there's nothing to see here!'"
The couple documented how Google had allegedly handicapped their company and other vertical search engines. Foundem alleged that Google's "Product Search" price comparison service is systematically given preference. From 2007 to 2009 alone, "the flows of customers to leading British price comparison services declined by 41 percent, while the number of visitors to Google Product Search increased by 125 percent."
The Raffs provided extensive documentation of these figures with screenshots and infographics, and compiled a nine-page document summarizing their results. In the document, titled "How Google's Universal Search Mechanism Threatens Competition and Innovation on the Internet," they contend that the manipulation of search methods "transforms Google's ostensibly neutral search engine into an immensely powerful marketing channel for Google's other services."
Google counters that it analyzes websites "without consideration for whether they compete with Google," and that its main criterion is "what's useful for the user."
Don't Tangle with Google
A French court arrived at a different conclusion in early 2012. The mapping company Bottin had sued Google in Paris for exploiting its dominant market position. The court ordered Google to pay 500,000 ($649,000) in damages for having "abusively exploited" its market power. The Internet giant has appealed the verdict. Meanwhile, a French search engine is making similar claims and has sued the company for almost 300 million in the Paris Commercial Court.
The management at Munich-based German media conglomerate ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG is also unhappy about Google's business conduct. For instance, when Thomas Port, managing director of the conglomerate's marketing firm typed the name of the Sat.1 station's football program "ran" into a Google video search, YouTube content appeared ahead of the company's own video services at ran.de.
The German company isn't sure why this happened, especially as the YouTube reproductions of "ran" broadcasts are legally dubious. The station uses a system that Google offers to filter legally protected content. "Google doesn't disclose why one search result should be better than others," says Port. His boss, Thomas Ebeling, CEO of the media group, expressed his opinion a little more clearly recently, when he said: "Almost no one knows why a search result appears among the first 10 positions in the search result list. But we all know that it will no longer appear at the top if you tangle with Google," he said at a media conference in September.
ProSiebenSat.1 management believes it has cause for such skepticism. When Google offered the media group the chance to disseminate its content on YouTube and ProSiebenSat.1 declined, something mysterious happened: Its video site, MyVideo, suddenly tumbled rapidly downward on the Google search results list, and within a week, say company executives, the number of hits to MyVideo declined by 80 percent. Was it coincidence or punishment?
When asked why, Google offered only a general response, saying that a decline in a company's ranking is often caused by a "significant change in the search algorithm or a change in the technical structure of an Internet site." Officials at the Munich company insist that essentially nothing was changed on their video site.
'Truly Harmful to Business'
Google also seems to give preference to its business partners, sometimes at the consumer's expense. Only a few weeks ago, the search engine announced a joint venture with Deutsche Bahn. Soon afterwards, the private railway association Mofair began complaining that "Google and Deutsche Bahn are misleading and ripping off rail users."
German users of the search engine can now have rail connections displayed on Google's mapping services, but only those connections provided by the German national railway company are displayed. Competitors have been left out, even if their connections are cheaper or faster.
For example, those unaware that there is now an alternative on the Hamburg-Cologne rail line called HKX Express, a company whose highest-priced ticket is 15 cheaper than Deutsche Bahn, isn't about to find it through Google Maps.
Things get even more ludicrous should you wish to travel by train between the two eastern German cities of Cottbus and Görlitz. If you type this query into Google's route planner, it spits out a circuitous connection that involves changing trains in Wegliniec, Poland. Travel time: 4 hours, 32 minutes. This is almost four times as long as the direct trip with the private line, Ostdeutsche Eisenbahn. But it too isn't featured in Google Maps.
"What's happening at Google is truly harmful to business," says Wolfgang Meyer, the president of Mofair. Deutsche Bahn justifies its actions by saying that it isn't allowed to pass on information of its competitors, while Google insists that no one is being excluded, and that "other providers could have worked with us in the past."
The problem, namely that the US giant is abusing its dominant position to further its own interests, could intensify in the future. The company is currently developing new content and products. Google is buying up publishers of travel books, has hired producers to populate YouTube channels with exclusive material and, just last week, it was revealed that Google is also considering the launch of an online price comparison site for car insurance in Germany.