News Analysis: Page Rank Suit Unlikely To Get Far

by , Mar 21, 2006, 6:00 AM
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Web publisher KinderStart, launched as a parents' advice site in 2000, spent five years growing its business--until it reached a point at which it had more than 10 million visitors each month. Then, on March 19, 2005, traffic plummeted by 70 percent. The site, which participated in Google's AdSense program, saw revenue from those placements dive as well.

The company thinks it knows who's to blame: Google.

The Norwalk, Calif.-based KinderStart late last week filed a lawsuit against the search giant, charging it with unfairly degrading the site's placement in the organic search results. KinderStart is also seeking to represent other Web publishers--at least 100, by KinderStart's estimation--that have seen their sites drop in Google's organic results pages.

Google said in a statement that the suit is without merit, and it intends to fight the case.

The gist of KinderStart's complaint is that Google dropped the site's Page Rank to zero and refused to reconsider, or explain its reasoning; the ultimate result was a drop in both traffic and ad revenue. When the term "KinderStart" is typed into the query box on Google, the Web site KinderStart.com doesn't appear in the organic results; MSN and Yahoo's search engines still display the company Web site as the top result.

Despite KinderStart's obvious frustration with Google, industry experts say the company's chances of prevailing appear to be slim-to-none--especially since Google previously won a similar suit brought by another company several years ago. What's more, they say, if companies could sue Google whenever their placement in organic listings dropped, Google--and other search companies--would no longer be able to function.

"It would be really unfortunate for the industry in general, if sites were going to sue Google every time they lost a ranking," said Peter Hershberg, managing partner at search engine marketing firm Reprise Media.

Greg Sterling, an analyst at The Kelsey Group, and former business litigator, agreed. "The implications of ruling for KinderStart in any way on this would be disastrous," he said, adding that the suit itself seemed to stem more from KinderStart's confusion about search rankings and dependence on Google than any viable legal theories. "There's a certain kind of childish rage that comes through with this--a sense of entitlement," he said.

In its complaint, KinderStart proposed that Google is liable under several different legal theories, including a claim that Google "possesses monopoly power." Additional theories include the proposition that Google curtailed KinderStart's free speech rights under the California constitution, and that Google libeled KinderStart by dropping its page rank to zero.

Google previously won a similar lawsuit brought in 2002 by SearchKing, an Oklahoma City-based online ad network. In that case, a federal district court found that Google had a free speech right to include or exclude whoever it wished from its search results.

Gregory Yu, KinderStart's lawyer, said the SearchKing case had different facts than KinderStart's, and that the decision wasn't legally binding in federal courts within California.

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