The European Commission is doing its due diligence in its investigation of Google's search-engine practices with a questionnaire to advertisers asking whether Google manipulated search results to promote its own Web services.
We learned in early December Europe's antitrust arm was investigating Google, but thanks to The New York Times, we now know the commission is circulating a written inquiry with 120 questions for Google advertisers.
Here are two sample questions for advertisers:
"Please explain whether and, if yes, to what extent your advertising spending with Google has ever had an influence on your ranking in Google's natural search," the investigators asked companies."
"Has Google ever mentioned to you that increasing your advertising spending could improve your ranking in Google's natural search?"
I'm no lawyer, but if I were, I would ask a judge to strike the first question from the record as leading. Advertisers are not qualified to answer whether their spending with Google has boosted their ranking in Google search.
That would presume some special understanding of Google's search algorithm. Such a question would be laughed out of a court in the U.S. Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling found these questions similarly fishy.
For the second part, if Google did tell an advertiser that spending more would improve an advertiser's ranking, it would be analogous to payola, and I don't know that Google would have a defense against that.
The commission asked for hard proof, so I suspect advertisers would provide any faxes, e-mail or other incriminating evidence.
My guess, given all of Google's smart people, is that the company's ad execs wouldn't be so stupid as to tell their clients such a thing.
The EC also sent a questionnaire to vertical search engines asking whether such gems as:
"Is your company aware of the existence of the features in Google's natural search ranking algorithm, which, in your view, might penalize the ranking or display of your vertical search Website pages?"
Posed to a vertical shopping search engine such as Foundem, which helped initiate the Commission's inquiry by complaining a year ago, this opens the perfect door for an attack against Google. But again, it's a leading question.
I expect we will know soon enough what the responses will be. The advertisers and search engines helping with the inquiry have until mid-February to respond to the questionnaire.
Meanwhile, in related news, Matt Cutts, Google search quality master, met with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., last week to oppose the notion of federal rules on Web search results.
He apparently came strapped with an 89-page slide presentation and told the regulators that explained that he does go into the search engine to squash out spam and viruses.
"The only reasons I know of to go in and change [search rankings] manually is for security, a court order or spam," Cutts said. "It is impossible to pay for a better ranking."
That sounds like a parry for FairSearch.org's opposition to Google's proposed acquisition of ITA Software.
It's also a defense Google could use against the questions Europe is posing advertisers and smaller search engines.
This is important. If the European Commission spanks Google for monkeying with search-engine results, the Federal Trade Commission and other U.S. regulators may feel increased pressure from Consumer Watchdog and other consumer advocates to do the same.
Google needs to plant the seed that its work and business practices are on the up and up. Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan is a staunch Google defender in this matter.