FTC Adding Social Search to Google Antitrust Probe

The FTC is reportedly adding Google's "Search, plus your world" service to its federal antitrust inquiry into the company's search practices. Search experts agree this is the logical course.

The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly expanding its antitrust probe of Google to include the company's new "Search, plus your world" social-search feature, an effort to make users' results more personal.

Bloombergand Reuters both said Jan. 13 that the FTC is looking into the matter because it is concerned Google is providing preference to Google+ over Web services from others, breaking its promise to provide unbiased search results.

Search, plus your world injects posts and pictures from users' Google+ accounts into their search results. It also makes users' Google+ contacts and relevant Google+ Pages more readily searchable.

However, the service eschews such content from Facebook and Twitter, two of the world's leading social services that users have come to expect content from on search engines. Google's failure to treat third-party sources equal to Google+ in search results drew complaints from the media, Twitter and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

EPIC Jan. 12 complained to the FTC that Google is skewering user privacy and antitrust rules just to keep up with Facebook.

The FTC appears to be listening to the Internet's concerns, which echo complaints brought to bear by senators who complained that Google was ranking its own products higher than those of Yelp, Expedia and others in its search results.

Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling told eWEEK:

"Google's promotion of Google+, seemingly without giving "equal time" to other networks, plays right into the chief complaint of many of Google's antitrust critics: that the company favors its own products and properties at the expense of competitors. Google either mishandled the communication around the rollout or demonstrated a kind of strange na???vet??« about how critics might react."

Google declined to comment on whether or not the FTC had contacted it about the new social-search issue. However, the company was unapologetic as to how Search, plus your world excludes Facebook, Twitter and other sources in its results.

"The laws are designed to help consumers benefit from innovation, not to help competitors," a Google spokesperson told eWEEK. "We believe that our improvements to search will benefit consumers by better surfacing social content, and the great thing about the openness of the Internet is that if users don't like our service, they can easily switch to another site."

There is some truth to this viewpoint. Casual users of Google+, Facebook and Twitter-that is, the majority of social service users-tend to go to all of those Websites separately and don't expect content from one would necessarily be in the other.

However, the other viewpoint espoused by some search and Internet experts is that the world's leading search engine must not exclude data sources from its search index.

There is often a gray area between playing fairly and actually violating antitrust laws, which are designed to protect consumers, not necessarily competitors in business.

Some experts said Google's practice is not necessarily an antitrust matter. Mark A. Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School who directs the program in law, science and technology, told The New York Times the move should not be viewed in anticompetitive terms.

"It can't be the rule that if Facebook says no, you can't search our links, that Google can't search its own links. That is not antitrust," Lemley said.

Still, the FTC can't ignore this issue, given the media outcry. "Even if the EPIC complaint hadn't been filed, I would have expected the FTC to examine this," Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan told eWEEK. "The investigation is still ongoing, so you'd obviously want to include this."