As horrifying as the precedent set by the Italian court that convicted three Google executives for privacy violations seemed, there is another frightening issue rearing its head against Google.
Specifically, this could set a bad precedent for search.
Have you ever heard of Foundem?
Let me rephrase the question: Had you ever heard of Foundem, which is apparently a U.K.-based shopping site that aggregates the results from online retailers' catalogs, before it filed a complaint with the European Commission this week?
Foundem, along with German product shopping site Microsoft Ciao for Bing and a French legal search engine called ejustice.fr, alleged Google demotes their Websites in Google search results.
In a filing to the Federal Communications Commission, Foundem argues that Google's Universal Search is just one big marketing channel for Google products and services. Foundem provides examples of where Google places results for cameras from its own Product Search high in the results.
Foundem calls for government regulation of Google to stop this alleged "marketing," which is interesting because the search engine results pages are determined by the mathematical PageRank system:
"There is an urgent need to constrain Google's domination--either through competition or through regulation. Despite the recent US and European approval of the search alliance between Yahoo! and Bing, competition in search is unlikely to be sufficient, at least in the short term. Carefully considered regulation is therefore needed to codify the Network and Search Neutrality principles of non-discrimination and transparency and apply them equally across the entire Internet ecosystem."
So let me get this straight: Foundem wants Google regulated because Google's product searches rank higher than Foundem's product search.
As Google builds out search services, it's only natural that those services would be surfaced by the Universal Search capabilities of Google's search engine because people know Google as a search portal that they can come to and find valuable information in a rapid fashion.
What's wrong with searching Google and getting results for other Google services? Google's search has been reliable, and so has Google's other Web services such as YouTube and Google Apps, so why wouldn't Google Product Searches appear high up?
As Google Fellow and search guru Amit Singhal noted:
"Our algorithms use hundreds of different signals to pick the top results for any given query. Signals are indicators of relevance, and they include items as simple as the words on a Web page or more complex calculations such as the authoritativeness of other sites linking to any given page. Those signals and our algorithms are in constant flux, and are constantly being improved."
Just as the Universal Search results are an evolution in the user interface on the front, Google's PageRank is in constant evolution, rendering those Universal Search results from the back end. It's all math, man, with people voting with their clicks to favorite destinations.
Google is not going in and manually pushing down Foundem results for Google results. Could Google do this? Sure, but that would be stupid. Google would get caught and its reputation would be flushed in a second.
If Google hadn't started doing product searches, and if people hadn't started voting with their clicks, Foundem wouldn't have complained and competition pundits such as Scott Cleland and Consumer Watchdog wouldn't have begun barking in earnest for the Department of Justice to take action. At least not for this instance.
Foundem also uses the case of Google Maps getting preferential treatment on Google search over MapQuest. Remember MapQuest? It's what you used before Google Maps came along with better results and graphical representation. At least, that's why I left MapQuest for Google Maps.
Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling, a maps and location expert, promptly shot this argument down, noting that MapQuest floundered because it failed to innovate.
He also countered Foundem's screenshots with examples of where Google actually offers competitors results side by side with its own results.
While I have no doubt that Google has employees that would have no problem flogging ethics for more money, I don't believe its leaders and core engineers would stray from their mission to organize the world's info and make it accessible without locking people in to its services, or by shutting people out.
I find it hard to believe Google would rig its own search results to flatten other, smaller operators. Frankly, it would go against the Don't Be Evil mantra in such a profound way as to make the ethos a lie.
That wouldn't just be arrogant and greedy, which I don't put beyond the reach of any large company; that would be profoundly stupid because it would set Google up as the next Microsoft.
This is a perfect calling case for people and entities, such as Microsoft, who want a new Microsoft to burn at the stake.
Google watchers see through the real conspiracy, and it's not on Google's end. If Microsoft can cultivate a groundswell of opposition and get these opponents to cry foul to regulators in the U.S. and in the EU, it could weaken Google and steal a bit of market share.
Who knows? In 10 years, the coin could flip. Microsoft Bing could be the one with 80 percent or so of global searches, with Google challenging from below.
Foundem's complaint, while grist for the Google-as-Internet-Antichrist views from some competition watchdogs, reads and sounds more like sour grapes. Sterling summed it up in his headline: These companies want courts and regulators to stymie Google to compensate for their own competitive failures.
If small vertical search engines go out of business, only a few will notice compared to the millions that may be affected if Google and other search engines are forced to rewrite their search algorithms for the purposes of government regulation.
Regulators: Don't let the dying cries of a few ruin the search experience for the rest of the satisfied searchers.
Search Engines Not Named Google: Build better products and stop whining. It's shameful.
Google: Keep on keeping on.