Google Dodges Antitrust Ruling, FTC Finds In Favor Of 'User Experience'

The Federal Trade Commission closed its 20-month investigation into Google without finding that the company had violated antitrust laws by promoting its own services in its search results.

Chairman Jon Leibowitz said on Thursday that the agency found that Google's primary reason for touting its own offerings in the search results was "to improve the user experience," as opposed to harming potential competitors.

"While Google’s prominent display of its own vertical search results on its search results page had the effect in some cases of pushing other results 'below the fold,' the evidence suggests that Google’s primary goal in introducing this content was to quickly answer, and better satisfy, its users’ search queries by providing directly relevant information," the FTC added in a written statement about Google's search practices.

The Microsoft-backed organization FairSearch criticized the FTC's decision, calling it "disappointing and premature." The group added that the FTC's settlement "is by no means the last word in this case," noting that European authorities and state attorneys general are still investigating Google. "The FTC’s inaction on the core question of search bias will only embolden Google to act more aggressively to misuse its monopoly power to harm other innovators," the group stated.

Google did agree to make a few minor changes to its services, the FTC said. Notably, the search company promised to allow companies to opt out of appearing in the vertical search engines -- like Google Local -- but still show up in the general search results.

Leibowitz said that the FTC sought that agreement to resolve "troubling allegations" that Google misappropriated rivals' content. "Google allegedly 'scraped' the user-generated reviews of local restaurants displayed on Yelp, and led consumers to believe that these reviews were its own. When some of these Web sites complained to Google about this practice, Google allegedly threatened to remove them entirely from Google’s search results," Leibowitz stated.

Google also promised to make it easier for companies to run simultaneous campaigns on its own service than those of competitors. That concession resolved concerns about whether Google unfairly restricted small businesses from using third-party tools to manage ad campaigns on Google and competitors.

The FTC said in its statement that it considered whether Google's restrictions amounted to unfair competition, and that two commissioners -- Leibowitz as well as Julie Brill -- found "evidence to support strong concerns about Google’s conduct in this regard."

A separate part of the FTC's investigation, which focused on patents that Google acquired when it purchased Motorola Mobility last year, resulted in an enforcement action. The FTC charged Google with unfairly excluding competitors from using some of those patents, which cover the technology used to make smartphones, tablets and other devices. Google agreed to settle those allegations by promising to allow competitors access to the patents.

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