Belfast Telegraph

The Google Antitrust Suit

By Barry Adams

The EU recently announced it is investigating a potential antitrust case against Google. One of the components of this investigation is the accusation that Google gives preference to its own online properties on its search results.

One example of Google's preference for its own products is how its own financial information is shown first when you search for a specific stock ticker using Google. For example if you search on Google for PHG, your first results are the latest stock information for Royal Philips Electronics with links to Google's own Finance site.

Similar things happen when you search for local businesses. Almost invariably your search results will be filled with local business listings powered by Google's own Places system. This means that users will have to perform extra clicks to finally end up on those businesses' websites, if they ever get there at all.

Not only that, but Google is launching new products that compete directly with existing businesses. For example Google recently launched Hotpot, which allows you to review local businesses in a social media type environment where you can connect with friends and recommend businesses.

A very similar site that does nearly the same in Northern Ireland is Lookaly. The difference is that Lookaly is run by two smart guys, while Google's Hotpot is powered by thousands of Google employees and billions of dollars of marketing power. And it’s likely that Hotpot will connect sooner rather than later with Google's Places system, effectively making a site like Lookaly obsolete overnight.

These developments have raised all kinds of red flags with European antitrust legislators, and so it's no surprise that investigations have begun.

Google defends itself by saying it wants what is best for its users. This should of course be taken with a grain of salt. Ever since Google went public on the stock market, it has a legal obligation to its shareholders to do whatever it can to maximise profits.

And with 99% of Google's profits coming from its advertising platform, where ads are shown as part of search results, Google has a very big stake in making sure people stay as long as possible on their search results and never leave Google’s environment at all.

Another counter-argument used by Google's supporters is that websites like Lookaly shouldn't be too reliant on a single source of traffic, in this case Google's search engine. This is however a rather naive argument, as Google boasts a market share in excess of 90% in nearly all European countries and so is perfectly positioned to abuse its power.

Back in the 1990's there was another technology giant that engaged in similar behaviour: Microsoft. A legal battle lasting many years was fought, which resulted in Microsoft changing its ways and opening its Windows products to competing software. This has turned out to be a very good thing for creators of rival software (the Firefox browser for example), and has not led to Microsoft's demise as the company once claimed.

We should hope that Google will also change its ways and stops abusing its near-monopoly to destroy small businesses. I for one applaud the EU antitrust case and hope it will be brought forward soon.

Barry Adams is senior digital marketer at Pierce Communications in Belfast. He hopes he will not be blocked from Google because of this column

Belfast Telegraph

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