Yelp has accused Google of scraping photos of local businesses from Yelp’s site and displaying them in Google’s own local search results in violation of commitments the search giant had made with the U.S Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in December 2012.
In a letter to the FTC, Yelp’s vice president of global public policy, Luther Lowe, said his company had recently conducted an investigation into Google’s use of Yelp photos. The inquiry revealed what appears to be a systematic contravention of Google’s commitments to the FTC, Lowe said in the letter, which was copied to the Attorneys General of all 50 states.
“The scale of this image content scraping suggests this is not an unintended glitch,” Lowe said, while urging the FTC to investigate the issue. He called on the FTC to ensure that Google is held accountable for its actions and subjected to remedies that ensure the company does not continue with its anti-competitive behavior.
In a statement, Google claimed that it has been in regular contact with Yelp for the past several years about product changes and how they appear in search results. “This is the first time we’ve heard of Yelp’s complaint that images from their site may be appearing in the way they claim,” Google said.
If Yelp had raised the concerns earlier, Google would have immediately investigated the issue and taken steps to remedy it, as the company is doing now, Google maintained.
The dispute centers on a Google commitment to allow third-party website owners such as Yelp, to opt out of having any form of content from their sites displayed on Google properties including local search. As part of the five-year commitment, Google created a tool that gave webmasters a simple way to specify the content they did not want Google to display on its own properties.
Yelp, which publishes crowd-sourced reviews of local businesses, often with images of those businesses, had asked Google to stop using that content as far back as 2011, before implementation of the FTC agreement. In response, Google had assured Yelp that it would remove all “third-party snippeted reviews” and also change its aggregate star rating and review count numbers so they reflected only Google content, Lowe said.
In fact, Google began excluding Yelp content from local search results 18 months before Google’s commitment letter to the FTC. But at some point after the 2012 commitment, the company resumed the display of Yelp content in Google Local OneBox, Lowe said.
A technique that Yelp developed to estimate the frequency of Google’s scraping behavior showed Google scraped Yelp’s site over 385,800 times in a single hour. The detection method that Yelp used only captured a small fraction of the actual number of scraping incidents. Even so it showed that Google is violating its commitments to the FTC at the rate of thousands of violations per minute.
Lowe claimed that Google appears to be trying to carefully conceal its activities by displaying Yelp content for listings where traffic is low or where Google has only a few images of its own.
It’s unclear whether Yelp’s complaint alone will be enough to get the FTC to take another look at Google’s business practices in the U.S. But it certainly adds to the growing chorus of complaints against Google from organizations that say they are hurting because of its anti-competitive behaviors.
Regulators in the European Union have already slapped Google with a massive $2.9 billion fine for unfair business practices and are investigating the company for monopolistic behavior in two other cases as well.
The FTC has previously investigated Google for anticompetitive conduct but controversially dropped the investigation in early 2013 without finding any fault against the company.
At the time, Google had agreed to voluntarily change some of its business practices to address some of the concerns raised by companies like TripAdvisor and Yelp.
A Wall Street Journal article based on a document it had obtained later showed that several officials at the FTC had indeed wanted to sue Google for abusing its market dominance at the time the investigation was dropped.