GOOGLE IS the king of online search. It runs 70 percent of the country’s queries and brings in 75 percent of the related advertising revenue. With such dominance inevitably comes the envy of rivals — and charges of illegal, anti-competitive behavior. But on Thursday the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted unanimously to close its antitrust investigation of Google without seeking penalties against the company, and rightly so.
More than a search engine, Google provides tools for activities such as online shopping and travel booking and builds those tools into its search results. Google “Washington to Los Angeles ticket,” for example, and Google will show you a box with flight itineraries and links to its own online travel booking service, followed by the familiar “blue-link” search results to competing online travel services such as Expedia and KAYAK. Similarly, Google a street address, and the first item that comes up is a Google Map.
Consumers lose, Google’s opponents argue, when they come to the entrenched leader in online search and get results that don’t point to what ought to be the most popular services first — instead prioritizing those associated with Google. The company, they say, has less of an incentive to improve its services since it can give them prominent space on its dominant search engine, driving traffic their way. Competitors are discouraged because they will never get that sort of play.
But the FTC found that “the totality of the evidence” indicates Google arranged its search results to make them more useful, not to quash competitors. “Reasonable minds may differ,” the commissioners wrote, “as to the best way to design a search results page and the best way to allocate space among organic links, paid advertisements and other features.” Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” which does not always mean directing users to other Web sites. Users looking for answers — say, the price of a plane ticket — may well prefer a Google-generated list at the top of their search pages, instead of clicking around to other sites. And if they don’t, they have other viable options, both in general search engines such as Bing and Yahoo and in other specialized online services. More Americans began product searches at Amazon.com in 2011, for example, than at Google.
Microsoft recently debuted a campaign to discredit Google’s shopping feature, warning Americans not to get “scroogled” and instead to try Bing. If Americans do, indeed, feel scroogled one way or another, all they need do is click to another Web site.