Google Accused Of Harming Consumers By Promoting Own Shopping Service

European regulators today brought antitrust charges against Google for allegedly promoting its own comparison shopping service, Google Shopping, at the expense of competitors.

Google “prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits,” officials in the European Commission alleged today in a “Statement of Objections.”

The regulators add: “Google's conduct may therefore artificially divert traffic from rival comparison shopping services and hinder their ability to compete, to the detriment of consumers, as well as stifling innovation.”

Since 2008, Google's “systematic” favoring of its own shopping service led Google Shopping (as well as the predecessor product, Google Product Search) to grow faster than rival shopping search engines, the regulators allege.

Officials also said they intend to investigate whether Google has violated antitrust laws with the Android operating system.

There's no telling yet how the charges will play out in Europe, where Google faces potential fines of $6 billion. But at first glance, the allegations seem a lot less extensive than some of the accusations leveled by Google's critics. Significantly, Europe's regulators don't allege that Google used its dominance in search to harm Yelp or TripAdvisor -- two companies that have complained loudly and long about Google.

The officials' decision to focus so narrowly on shopping -- and not at all on travel or local search -- is somewhat surprising, according to analyst Greg Sterling. Google's treatment of travel and local search services “had been hotly argued and contested,” Sterling writes on Screenwerk. “Yelp even developed a very interesting, concrete algorithmic approach about how to address 'search bias' in local results.”

In the U.S., regulators at the Federal Trade Commission decided in early 2013 not to prosecute Google for alleged antitrust violations stemming from its practice of posting snippets of reviews from Yelp and other sites. In order to convince the FTC to drop its investigation, Google agreed to revise its practices by allowing companies to appear in the search results and also opt out of having their content scraped for snippets.

For its part, Google said today that it disagrees with the EU's allegations. “If you look at shopping -- an area where we have seen a lot of complaints and where the European Commission has focused in its Statement of Objections -- it’s clear that (a) there’s a ton of competition (including from Amazon and eBay, two of the biggest shopping sites in the world) and (b) Google’s shopping results have not harmed the competition,” Amit Singhal, senior vice president for Google Search, writes.

Singhal adds that there are “numerous other search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, Quora [and] DuckDuckGo,” and that there are “a ton of specialized services like Amazon, Idealo, Le Guide, Expedia or eBay.”

The company is expected to file a more detailed rebuttal of the charges later.

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