Has Google altered its algorithm to favor its own properties in vertical search results?
Numerous publishers which now find themselves competing with the search engine they rely on for valuable traffic have accused Google of doing just that. Some in the industry have even petitioned antitrust regulators to look into the matter.
Bureaucrats, not surprisingly, were eager to oblige, and late last year, it appeared that the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was ready to pursue an antitrust case against Google.
At the time, sources indicated that the FTC wasn't focused on Google's alleged algorithm shenanigans, however, and yesterday, that was confirmed as Google and the FTC agreed to a settlement that will bring to a close the FTC's broad investigation of the search giant's practices.
As part of the settlement, Google will grant competitors access to numerous patents it owns that are considered crucial to the manufacture of computing devices, including smart phones and tablets.
Many of those patents were acquired when Google bought Motorola Mobility, and one of the FTC's beefs with Google was that it had reneged on its commitment to license key patents on "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" (FRAND) terms. Going forward, Google will not be able to seek to prevent competitors from using these patents.
Additionally, as part of its settlement with the FTC, Google will allow advertisers to more easily and freely manage their AdWords campaigns using the AdWords API.
According to the FTC's press release:
Some FTC Commissioners were concerned that Google’s contractual conditions governing the use of its API made it more difficult for an advertiser to simultaneously manage a campaign on AdWords and on competing ad platforms, and that these restrictions might impair competition in search advertising.
Finally, Google has agreed to give publishers a greater ability to opt-out of having their content used in Google's growing number of vertical search offerings.
Search bias as innovation
Much the chagrin of publishers which find themselves doing battle with the world's largest search engine-turned-publisher, the FTC concluded that any tweaks Google has made to its algorithm that favor the company's own properties do not represent antitrust violations.
The FTC's investigation of search bias focused on the Google's Universal Search and allegations that the Mountain View company had intentionally demoted competitors' websites in the SERPs.
Here, the FTC didn't dismiss those claims as unfounded, but rather determined that "the introduction of Universal Search, as well as additional changes made to Google’s search algorithms - even those that may have had the effect of harming individual competitors - could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google's product and the experience of its users."
As difficult as that might be for some publishers to swallow, it's arguably the right conclusion. Asking government regulators to meddle with Google's search algorithm would be asking for trouble and besides, Google's ability to use its search engine to promote its own properties is a double-edged sword.
After all, if Google is unable to develop compelling online services, but promotes them prominently over competitors, the perceived quality of Google's index could decline over time, potentially creating problems for Google and opportunities for its search competitors.
The good news for everybody is that, in the United States at least, the legal battle over search bias allegations would appear to be over. Like it or not, Google The Search Engine can promote Google The Publisher, so Google's publishing competitors can return their focus to the war: convincing consumers that they have the better products and services.