Google Defends Search Business Against Nextag Claims

Nextag’s CEO says Google is skewing search results to favor itself and advertisers, but Google executives say the accusations are baseless.

Google executives are striking back at accusations by the CEO of online comparative shopping site Nextag that they are monopolistic and a €œbrand killer€ who skew their search results to favor themselves and their advertisers.

Jeffrey Katz, who at one time also had been CEO of online travel site Orbitz, wrote in an opinion piece on the Wall Street Journal site June 7 that running a Google search at one time had resulted in the most relevant results. However, over the years, as Google has grown larger, richer and more dominant in the search market, it€™s changed the algorithms so that €œthe most prominent results are displayed because companies paid Google for that privilege. In addition, Google often uses its prime real estate to promote its own (often less relevant and inferior) products and services, prohibiting companies from buying its best advertisements.€

Google fired back June 8. In a post on the Google blog, Amit Singhal, senior vice president of engineering, disputed Katz€™s claims.

€œWhile we€™re always happy to have feedback about how we can improve, it€™s more useful if that feedback is based on facts,€ Singhal wrote, saying that Katz €œmakes several claims that are wrong€”or suggests that Google start doing things that we already do.€

The back-and-forth comes as the European Union€™s antitrust head, Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, said Google had until early July to outline how it will address concerns the EU has over its business practices. In a letter to Google in May, Almunia said that a lengthy investigation raised several issues, including that Google favored its own search results over others. Google disagreed with the findings.

Katz supported the EU€™s findings. In his column, he noted that Google had grown so dominant in the search market that its nearest competitor€”Microsoft€™s Bing€”was too far behind to matter, making Google essentially a monopoly. Google has used that dominant position to change its algorithms to favor its own products or that of advertisers.

€œAnd as a result, it has shifted from a true search site into a commerce site€”a commerce site whose search algorithm favors products and services from Google and those from companies able to spend the most on advertising,€ Katz said. €œAs a result, by controlling which companies, organizations and causes get exposure, Google has become a brand killer,€ creating a €œ€™cloak of invisibility for less-favored brands.€

He admits in the column that his own company has been impacted. Because it has a strong online shopping site, search results from Google used to highlight Nextag over Google€™s own services €œbecause our services were better€”and they still are. But Google's latest changes are clearly no longer about helping users.€

In his blog post, Google€™s Singhal disputed the claim that search results favored Google or its largest advertisers. He also fired back at Nextag and other online comparison sites.

€œLet me be very clear: our unpaid, natural search results are never influenced by payment,€ Singhal wrote. €œOur algorithms rank results based only on what the most relevant answers are for users€”which might be a direct answer or a competitor€™s website. Our ads and commercial experiences are clearly labeled and distinct from the unpaid results, and we recently announced new improvements to labeling of shopping results. This is in contrast to most comparison shopping sites, which receive payment from merchants but often don€™t clearly label search results as being influenced by payment.€

He also said that the company makes more than 500 algorithm changes each year€”€œeach one scientifically evaluated€€”and that Google publishes a list of the improvements each month.

€œEvery one of those changes moves some websites up and some sites down in the rankings, but the most important thing is that users are happy with the results,€ Singhal said.

In addition, he said that if users were unhappy with the search results from Google, the search space has grown such that there are other options.

€œIt€™s understandable that every website believes that it is the best, and wants to rank at the top of Google results,€ Singhal wrote. €œThe great thing about the openness of the Internet is that if users don€™t find our results relevant and useful, they can easily navigate to Nextag, Amazon, Yelp, Bing or any other website. There has never been as much choice online as there is today. Over the last few years, we€™ve faced competition from new players, including social networks, mobile apps, and specialty search sites. All that competition is a great thing for consumers, it gives you more choices and makes us work hard to deliver you even more relevant answers, day after day.€