EU Opens Antitrust Probe Into Google SEO And Paid-Search Practices

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In a move expected by some marketing and SEO or paid-search experts, the European Commission (EU) has opened an antitrust investigation into allegations that Google abused its dominant position in online search results for paid and organic. Complaints of unfair treatment in unpaid and paid search results, as well as preferential placement of Google's services, prompted the formal probe.

Starting the proceedings does not imply wrongdoing or proof of misuse in market share power. The Commission will investigate whether Google abused a dominant market position in online search by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid and paid-search results of competing services. The allegations, explained Tuesday in a blog post, follow an original complaint detailed in a post from February.

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The Commission will also look into allegations that Google lowered the Quality Score for sponsored links of competing vertical search services. Search marketers understand that the Quality Score is one of the factors that determine the price paid to Google by advertisers.

There are always Web sites unhappy in where they rank in search engine results. In the end, we may see allegations in Europe brought on by Foundem.com.uk and ejustice.fr were unfounded.

Content quality plays a major determination when considering where a Web site will rank. Original, good-quality content helps the site rank high. More than 70% of content on Foundem's Web site is duplicate content from other sites, and ejustice pulls in most of their content repurposed from Google search results, according to Adam Kovacevich, Google spokesperson.

Another issue points to advertisers not having the ability to export campaigns from AdWords into other paid-search platforms such as Microsoft adCenter, but Kovacevich says advertisers have always had that option. There are no restrictions on advertisers, but ad agencies exporting campaign copy from one tab or screen to another must do so through an API. This ensures that the agency placing ads across several search engines do not play to the lowest common denominator.

"Manipulating rankings" is Google's business model, according to Aaron Goldman, CMO at Kenshoo, a search marketing and technology company. "The question is whether it is manipulating maliciously and stifling competition in the process," he says. "It will be tough to make this case."

Goldman says Google has a long track record of manipulating rankings solely for the purpose of giving searchers more relevant results, an assertion to which Google agrees.

If there's any weight to the marketplace allegations, it could artificially prompt "competition by raising and lowering minimum bid and Quality Score requirements to create bid activity and spur actual bidding between competitors," adds Rob Griffin, global director of search and analysis at Havas Digital.

Google provided responses to the EU inquiry:

EC: The opening of formal proceedings follows complaints by search service providers about unfavourable treatment of their services in Google's unpaid and sponsored search results coupled with an alleged preferential placement of Google's own services.

Google Response: We built Google for users, not web sites, and the nature of ranking is that some web sites will be unhappy with where they rank. Those sites have complained and even sued us over the years, but in all cases there were compelling reasons why their sites were ranked poorly by our algorithms. For example, Foundem -- one of the sites that has complained publicly and to the European Commission -- duplicates 79% of its web site content from other sites, and we have consistently informed webmasters that our algorithms disadvantage duplicate sites.

With respect to showing our "own" services and "preferential treatment," our only goal is to provide the best answer for users -- and sometimes the most useful answer isn't "ten blue links," but a map for an address query, or a series of images for a query like "pictures of Egyptian pyramids." We often provide these results in the form of "quick answers" at the top of the page, because our users want a quick answer.

EC: The Commission will investigate whether Google has abused a dominant market position in online search by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results of competing services which are specialised in providing users with specific online content such as price comparisons (so-called vertical search services) and by according preferential placement to the results of its own vertical search services in order to shut out competing services.

Response: Google has never taken action to intentionally hurt competing services. For consumers searching on Google for specific queries like "digital camera price comparison," we offer product search results (which are 100% free for merchants and users) because we believe it's more useful to provide a user with products and prices than just "ten blue links." When a user searches for queries like "flights from San Francisco to London," we think the most useful answer is showing fares and flights, not just a collection of links. This is all part of making search more useful to users.

EC: The Commission will also look into allegations that Google lowered the 'Quality Score' for sponsored links of competing vertical search services. The Quality Score is one of the factors that determine the price paid to Google by advertisers.

Google Response: All search engines -- including Google, Yahoo and Bing -- use quality scores to ensure that consumers see ads that are relevant to their searches, not just ads from the highest bidder. These quality scores are determined based on our assessment of the relevance of the ad to the query and whether the site provides useful information. We also inform advertisers of their quality scores and give them tips on how to improve them. Typically, the sites that complain about quality scores have less relevant, lower quality content which we have learned our users are less interested in seeing.

EC: The Commission's probe will additionally focus on allegations that Google imposes exclusivity obligations on advertising partners, preventing them from placing certain types of competing ads on their web sites, as well as on computer and software vendors, with the aim of shutting out competing search tools.

Google Response: We do not impose any exclusivity obligations on advertisers. Our online contracts for AdSense have never been exclusive. For our few directly-negotiated AdSense accounts, we stopped using exclusive contracts almost two years ago. Our contracts with computer and software vendors, where we provide search services, are all short term. And most importantly, these contracts can't prevent users from choosing other search providers.

EC: Finally, it will investigate suspected restrictions on the portability of online advertising campaign data to competing online advertising platforms.

Google Response: We absolutely provide advertisers with the ability to export their ad campaigns from Google to other platforms, via CSV export detailed here.

1 comment about "EU Opens Antitrust Probe Into Google SEO And Paid-Search Practices".
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  1. Chris Nielsen from Domain Incubation, December 1, 2010 at 11:40 a.m.

    I have heard others raise this question before and it certainly should be looked into.

    I have even heard some stories about a site that really should not be ranking, enjoying great position for at least some period of time. Given that a top ranking for some topics can be worth a great deal of money, it would not surprise me to learn that bribes were placed to gain some advantage periodically.

    The finger-pointing to "duplicate content" is misleading. Duplicate content is not really much of a problem, it's duplicate SEO that is the problem. :-)

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