Google Search Probed by Texas AG for Antitrust

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-09-04

Google Search Probed by Texas AG for Antitrust

Google said Sept. 3 that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is conducting an antitrust probe of complaints that the company stifles Websites that compete with its search engine.

Search Engine Land broke the news and Google Deputy General Counsel Don Harrison confirmed the investigation in a blog post. Abbott's office declined to discuss the case per its policy.

The cases cover those brought by shopping comparison Websites Foundem and myTriggers, and search directory SourceTools, all three of whom have ties to Microsoft.

Rankings, or where Websites are placed in Google's search results pages, can make or break companies that live online because Google commands roughly 65 percent of the search market.

The companies in the cases Abbott is looking at are looking to leverage the position that Google's power as the world's leading service provider put it in a position to harm smaller businesses.

Foundem, whose case came to the fore thanks to an investigation by the European Commission and the company's support from Microsoft, said in February Google unfairly lowers its rankings to boost its own Google Product search service.

MyTriggers and SourceTools have said Google denigrates their ad placement on its search engine, causing the companies to lose money. Both companies hired Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, which has done antitrust work for Microsoft.

Harrison reiterated the company line that some Websites have higher rankings than others because Google's algorithms are geared to find the most relevant results for users based on a number of signals.

"Given that not every Website can be at the top of the results, or even appear on the first page of our results, it's unsurprising that some less relevant, lower quality Websites will be unhappy with their ranking," Harrison said.

Google Probed for Antitrust

He suggested that Foundem's Website has a poor ranking because it is poor quality, noting that Amazon, Expedia an tend to rank high in Google's search results because they offer quality services.

"The reality is that we don't discriminate against competitors," said Harrison, adding that Google is working with the Texas Attorney General's office to address its concerns.

Google may not have a lot of work to do. Court judges and search engine experts such as Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan tend to take a dim view of such suits.

"My view is the arguments are generally absurd," Sullivan wrote in his post. "None of these companies are large enough to pose any threat to Google, to the degree it would be compelled to take such stupid action. Moreover, if Google's going to act to block a competitor, I'd expect it to pick bigger targets -- say like Microsoft."

Such sentiment makes a fine segue to the broader picture.

Google is facing a growing tide of hostility, some of it facilitated by Microsoft, whose search service Bing is struggling to gain traction versus the powerful incumbent.

Microsoft admitted telling the Department of Justice and EC that Google is stifling competition in search and online advertising. Microsoft has also directed other companies to antitrust regulators.

Foundem's founders Adam Raff and Shivaun Raff earlier this year were said to have been introduced to Congressional staff members and antitrust enforcers at the DOJ and FTC by antitrust attorney Gary Reback. Reback is fighting Google's Book Search bid to organize the world's orphaned books and sell them online.

Chalk much of the antitrust rhetoric up to Google's growth in the last 11 years. The company's hunger hasn't dimmed, making it susceptible to additional scrutiny by companies, competitors and regulators concerned about corporate greed.

Google's $750 million bid to buy mobile ad provider AdMob didn't close until May because the Federal Trade Commission scrutinized it intensely. Google is facing a similar probe for its $700 million play for flight information software maker ITA.



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