Senate Antitrust Panel Questions Google's Search Results

by , Sep 21, 2011, 5:36 PM
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Lawmakers on a Senate antitrust subcommittee grilled Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about whether Google favors its own products and services when returning search results.

"For the last five years or so, Google has been on an acquisition binge, acquiring dozens of Internet-related businesses, culminating most recently with its proposed acquisitions of Motorola Mobility and Zagats," Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, said in prepared opening remarks.

"These acquisitions raise a very fundamental question -- is it possible for Google to be both an unbiased search engine and at the same time own a vast portfolio of Web-based products and services?" Kohl asked.

Schmidt repeatedly said that Google aims to return results based on what consumers will find useful. He said Google determines how to place links on results pages based on complex algorithms and assessments of whether the results are relevant to people's queries.

"In a competitive market, we're focused on consumers," Schmidt said, adding that the company is "kept honest" by the press and others. "Google does nothing to block access to any competitors or other sources of information."

At the same time, Schmidt didn't dispute that Google sometimes gives prominent placement in the results pages to its own services and products -- for example, when it shows a map from Google Maps at the top of the results after users type in addresses.

"When people want a map, they want a map right then and there," Schmidt said.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told Schmidt of complaints by small businesses that didn't place as high in the organic rankings as they would have liked. Schmidt said while he has "a lot of sympathy" for businesses when their placement in the organic results listings drops, such changes are inherent to search engines. "We are in the rankings business, so for every loser there's a winner," he said.

Executives from Yelp and Nextag were also among the witnesses at the three-hour hearing, "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition."

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman criticized Google for including Yelp reviews in Google's local search product without a license. "Google forces review Web sites to provide their content for free to benefit Google's own competing product -- not consumers," Stoppleman said in his written statement. "Google then gives its own product preferential treatment in Google search results."

In response to a question about whether he would launch Yelp today, Stoppleman replied that he would not. "Honestly, I'd find something else to do," he said. "When we started there was a level playing field."

On the eve of the hearing, the consortium FairSearch, which includes Google rival Microsoft, said it had fielded a survey showing that 79% of Americans want an FTC probe of Google for "restricting fair competition and misleading consumers."

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