Google Antitrust Case: Should Anyone Really Care If Google Is Evil?

FILE - In this Dec.6, 2011 file photo, the Google logo is seen on the carpet at Google France offices before its inauguration
FILE - In this Dec.6, 2011 file photo, the Google logo is seen on the carpet at Google France offices before its inauguration, in Paris. Publishers in France, Germany and Italy want their governments to impose a "news tax" on Google to save them from extinction, demanding a law that would charge the search engine small payments in exchange for links to stories. Google, in response, says it will cease to index the sites altogether, warning that the proposals do nothing to solve the industry's problems on the continent that invented the printing press. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, Pool, File)

To those who follow the policy minutiae of the tech world, the government's investigation of Google's search and advertising business is an epic showdown that could dictate the future of Internet commerce.

But to everyday consumers who just want to find stuff online quickly, the case often elicits little more than a yawn.

The case centers on whether Google is violating antitrust law by using its market power to favor its own products in search results over competitors. Google says it's just showing consumers the most relevant results, and if they don't like them, they can use another search engine. "Competition is one a click away," the company says.

The Federal Trade Commission is expected to decide whether to sue Google or settle with the company before the end of the year.

So should you care?

Google's rivals say you should. They paint a bleak portrait of the online ecosystem if the FTC doesn't take action against Google, arguing that consumers would see fewer choices and higher prices.

Google runs the world's most popular search engine. It commands 67 percent of the market. This isn't a crime in itself. But Google now offers a variety of services, creating friction with new competitors. Google Flight Search competes with airfare shopping sites like Expedia, Kayak and Travelocity. Google Shopping competes with Nextag, a comparison shopping site.

Google's rivals argue the company is using its monopoly power in search to demote their listings in search results. As evidence, they cite examples like when consumers search for "Best Sushi New York" on Google. The first result is a blog post from Zagat, a Google-owned restaurant review site. Below that are seven restaurant listings and reviews from Google's local information service. Further down is a link to reviews from Google's competitor in the market, Yelp.

Or they point to Google's new policy in which the search giant only lists paid advertisers on Google Shopping, its comparison shopping service, arguing that consumers will no longer see the best available shopping results -- only those from retailers who can afford to pay Google's ad rates. (Google's main search results are not impacted by paid advertisers, Google says.)

In response, Google's rivals must either pay to appear on Google Shopping or increase spending on Google search advertising to ensure they get noticed by consumers, according to Ben Hammer, a spokesman for FairSearch, an advocacy group backed by Google's competitors, including Microsoft, Travelocity, Hotwire and Expedia.

If they don't pay, they could lose valuable traffic and revenue and go out of business, leaving consumers with fewer options for comparing flights or restaurants, he said. If they do pay, that increases their cost of doing business, which are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, Hammer argues.

"Whether it's a local chain of bike shops or restaurants or tech companies, if their costs go up that means we're paying higher prices or getting less from those companies," he said.

Google's critics argue that consumers are unaware that Google is allegedly suppressing rivals' products in search results. FairSearch conducted a survey that found nearly 80 percent of Americans favor the FTC's investigation of Google "for restricting fair competition and misleading consumers."

However, Google says it tweaks its algorithm to show consumers the most relevant search results -- regardless of whether they are Google services or not. And some remain unconvinced that consumers are being harmed by the way Google displays search results.

Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, a blog that covers the online search industry, said consumers can easily find listings of Google's rivals on the first page of search results. And when they search for flights on Google, he said, they are getting what they want: a list of airlines and prices.

If Google were required to favor listings of competitors like Expedia or Travelocity in search results, he said, consumers would have to do more work, because they would be directed to another search engine, instead of quickly receiving the flight information they were seeking, Sullivan said.

The fate of Google's rivals, he said, should not hinge on whether the government forces Google to play fair with search results, but instead on whether those companies build a reliable search engine that consumers want to visit directly.

"Google didn't become a great search engine when it started out by complaining it wasn't being listed in Yahoo and AltaVista," he said. "It's like you're a newspaper in New York and you're complaining that other newspapers aren't running your articles. It sounds crazy."



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