Should Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) find itself in the Federal Trade Commission's anti-competitive sights, there could be one very big beneficiary: Microsoft's Bing.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the FTC will soon subpoena Google for information, which in turn could lead into an antitrust inquiry into the search engine giant's search advertising practices. The FTC will also apparently send formal requests for information to companies that work with Google. (Neither Google nor the FTC provided comment to eWEEK on the matter.)
U.S. Sens. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, also want Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to appear at their July hearing on the search industry. Google plans to send Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, who has testified before about Google's acquisitions and policies. But the two senators, in a June 10 letter, remained insistent that either Page or Schmidt appear to answer "fundamental questions about business operations rather than merely legal matters."
That congressional drama is dovetailing neatly with the FTC's recent focus on Google's business practices, although The Wall Street Journal noted that any formal FTC investigation could take more than a year to unfold and result in no formal charges.
According to research firm comScore, Google held 65.5 percent of the search market through May, compared with Yahoo at 15.9 percent and Bing at 14.1 percent. Google continues to lure more than 1 billion unique visitors a month to its properties, versus Microsoft with 905 million.
But Microsoft has been notably aggressive of late in building out Bing's capabilities. Bing now presents Facebook information on the search-results page. Search for a particular city, for example, and the search engine will tell you which Facebook friends live there. Given Microsoft's minority stake in Facebook, this leveraging of the latter's data should come as no surprise; for its own part, Microsoft seems determined to graft a social layer into search as a means of differentiating its own offering from its Mountain View, Calif., rival.
New features and slow-but-steady market share gains aside, a federal probe into Google's practices could also help Bing gain share.
"Direct injunctions could prevent Google from doing certain things," Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, told eWEEK June 24. Federal action could also spark "excessive caution on the part of Google trying to avoid getting near the tripwire, once the Department of Justice or whoever sets up such a thing."
Other analysts seem to concur.
"Microsoft's Bing could benefit," Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research, wrote in a June 24 email to eWEEK, "as Google has not had to put in the same level of restraints and controls as Microsoft to avoid bundling and favoritism for its own portfolio."
In other words, a federal probe could ease the competitive pressures on Bing. The question is whether, should such a thing occur, Microsoft-no stranger itself to the intricacies of the antitrust environment-will take advantage in ways that make it a genuine rival to Google in search.