EU has Google in its searchlights

Google's search engines are facing an anti-trust investigation by the European Commission. As signs of maturity go, that's like being handed a pair of slippers and lighting a pipe...

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 06 Oct 2015

The EU is investigating the dotcom wunderkind-turned-technology giant for its dominant position in search and advertising. Which is effectively the signal for any tech company to say it’s officially made it as representative of the establishment.

The investigation is hardly a surprise. Rivals have long been complaining how Google has been giving its own services ‘preferential placement’ within its listings, and alleging that Google ‘lowers the ranking’ of the search results of some services, such as price comparison websites, to ‘shut out competing services’.

We can’t really say we’re surprised that Google’s dominance should attract attention. It has over 90% of the search market in the UK, for example. The complainants snipe that Google imposes ‘exclusivity obligations’ on its advertising partners, preventing them from placing ‘certain types of competing ads on their web sites’. Which, if true, are hardly fitting methods for a company that began life making a huge play against doing ‘evil’.

The probe seems to stem directly from complaints by a group of online (relative) minnows - notably UK-based Foundem, a price comparison site - that Google is abusing its market dominance to keep smaller competitors at bay. The theory is that Google's Page Rank algorithm is deliberately set up so that it promotes Google's own results ahead of rivals's results - so if you were trying to buy a new TV, it would be more likely to show you a Google shopping result than a Foundem one. That would mean said rivals would have to buy a sponsored link to get to the top of the ratings - and since this works on a tiered price tariff, there have even been suggestions that Google deliberately lowered their so-called Quality Score so these ads would be more expensive. Oh, and the EU apparently also plans to investigate whether Google prevents advertising partners from running competing ads on their own sites.

All of this stuff - which Google denies, of course - would clearly be an egregious abuse of Google's market position. And when you're so dominant, in a market that's now so important to the way most people do pretty much everything, the consequences of such abuse would be significant. So it's right that the EU is sticking its oar in (in fact, maybe it should have done it sooner).

But the trouble will be trying to make any of these allegations stick. The algorithm that Google uses to rank results is, famously, a trade secret - it's hugely complex, and nobody really knows how it works. It also changes all the time, so even though the EU will probably (to the envy of techies everywhere) be able to poke around its inner workings, they'll be trying to pin down a moving target. For its part, Google insists it just reflects what users want, an argument that may be hard to disprove - for example, it reckons that it downgrades Foundem because so much of its content is duplicated from other sites, which makes it less interesting to users (an interesting argument for a site that's based around other people content, but there you go).

An interesting aside that gives the grumble added rumble is that one of the other complainants is Microsoft. In the days of the Browser Wars it was Microsoft that had the EU crawling all over it trying to get it to give others a fair crack of the whip. Now that it’s Google’s turn, Microsoft must be smarting on two counts: not only is it fighting for a piece of Google’s pie, but it’s doing so in the knowledge that it’s no longer cutting-edge enough to play the bad guy.

Indeed, it all shows just how far Google has come from its anti-establishment roots. In the maturity stakes, to incur the wrath of the EU Anti-monopolies people is the tech equivalent of getting a mortgage and swapping your nippy two-seater for a people carrier.

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