Google Dec. 13 defended itself from suggestions that it gives its own Place Pages local search service preferential treatment on Google.com, arguing that anything it does is to help users find the best information possible.
The issue arose after the Wall Street Journal published this story (paywall warning) Dec. 12 sourcing startup executives who fear Google is hijacking their market by touting links to its own results over their own.
TripAdvisor.com, health site WebMD.com and local business Websites Yelp.com and Citysearch.com have complained that Google surfaces links to services such as as Google Places or Google Health above links to their own services.
For example, Google has boosted the profile of its Google Places local search directory to help users find local businesses. Places makes it easier for local businesses to surface via searches on Google.com and Google Maps; people click on pins that highlight Places results to see photos, phone numbers and more info about those businesses.
Google began putting those Places pins more prominently in search results with its Place Search service, which groups information from Place Pages when users do a search for a local restaurant, landmark or business, in October. This effectively pushed startups' results further down on Google, making them harder for users to see and click on.
TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer told the Journal the traffic his site gets from Google's search engine dropped by more than 10 percent as Google prepared to launch Place Search. In protest, TripAdvisor briefly blocked its content from Google Place Search after it felt it results were squeezed.
Carter Maslan, director of product management for Google's local services, defended its Place Pages and Place Search as services that help users compare places and find great sites with local information.
"When people come to Google looking for information about places like restaurants, shoe stores, parks or museums, our goal is to provide them with answers as quickly as possible and presented in a way that's easy to read and understand," Maslan wrote in a Dec. 13 blog post.
Sometimes that information is from TripAdvisor or Yelp, sometimes it's from Google Places. Regardless, Maslan said, "we simply organize those results around places to make it much faster to find what you're looking for."
Google won't deny that it's drastically trying to boost it local search capabilities, recently failing to acquire local deals power Groupon. The company wants to grab more ad revenue from local businesses; Google launched a small business version of AdWords, called Boost, earlier this year.
Yet Google's ultimate position is that it created all of these local search services to benefit users, not the Websites whose content it indexes in the course of providing users' information about businesses and locations.
Even so, a steady drum beat is beginning to build around the issue. The complaints from local search Websites in the U.S. echo those made by product search sites Foundem, Ciao and eJustice in Europe.
Their pleas have piqued the interest of the European Commission, which is investigating Google for finagling search results to put its own Google Product Search results above those of the smaller providers.
Google is hearing similar complaints from FairSearch.org members, who oppose Google's proposed bid to buy travel software maker ITA Software because they believe the search engine will take over their market.
Microsoft, which funds the ICOMP organization dedicated to persecuting Google for its expansion on the Web, joined FairSearch.org today.
The burden all of these companies face is proving that Google is not only touting its own services above their others, but that in doing so it is harming the consumers by reducing choice and healthy competition.