Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has removed snippets of reviews published on third-party local search rivals from its Google Places local search product, a move that could boost the company's argument that it doesn't violate antitrust laws.
There is quite a back story to this move. Google in April 2010 retooled its Local Business Center search service, which lists millions of businesses as Google Places.
Google fortified the service with snippets of content from Yelp, TripAdvisor, UrbanSpoon, CitySearch and other local search providers. Users may search for local business info by typing in names of those establishments on Google Maps.
Within months, the company began receiving complaints about the way it rendered reviews and ratings from these third-party providers. TripAdvisor in December 2010 briefly blocked its reviews from appearing on Google Places, but quickly restored the access.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman said in March 2011:
"We just don't get any value out of our reviews appearing on Google places and haven't been given an option other than to remove ourselves from search, how to improve this situation."
Google argued that it was fairly surfacing content from other Web services for the good of consumers, as well as third parties. Yet even after Yelp, TripAdvisor and others complained that Google is unfairly using their work, these smaller services alleged Google surfaces links to Google Places above links to their own services.
These same gripes and the executives issuing them are now fodder for antitrust inquiry the Federal Trade Commission is making into Google's search business.
To wit, Google has now put the kibosh on review blurbs from its smaller rivals. Avni Shah, director of product management for Google, didn't mention the FTC inquiry or competitor complaints in a blog post, opting to paint the move as geared toward best serving consumers:
"Based on careful thought about the future direction of Place pages, and feedback we've heard over the past few months, review snippets from other Web sources have now been removed from Place pages," Shah wrote July 21.
Google will, however, continue to provide links to Yelp, CitySearch and other third-party review sites.
Ironically, Google is opting to use the rating and reviews its own Honeypot recommendation engine has culled from users, which could one day lend more credence to the notion that it favors its own services. Google, of course, built the recommendation engine so it wouldn't have to rely on third-party reviews.
To facilitate recommendation sharing, Google added a Write a review button to the top of the Place page to encourage users to comment about restaurants, museums and other businesses they've visited.
It's something of a Catch-22; companies aren't happy with Google profiting from their work, but they don't want to be shut out of the leading search engine either. It will be interesting to see how the companies and the FTC respond.
In the meantime, Shah pledged Google will bring users more personalized results in local search; integrate Place pages in users' search across all Google platforms; and create more ways for users to rate, discover and share places on any device.
The Wall Street Journal has more details on this development.