Recently CNN’s Erin Brunett showcased a piece on her show Outfront that raise a few eyebrows. The news anchor asked the question: “Does Google know too much about you? And is the search engine giant a monopoly?” At first blush it sounded like a scare tactic to rile up viewers. I’ve seen similar stories on this before. “Google is trying to take over the world! Run!” etc. However I was still intrigued.
According to the story, a great deal of Google’s competition has recently come out saying that the search engine superpower is in fact a monopoly. Due to this, there is an investigation of Google currently underway, as the Federal Trade Commission looks into these claims. The report said they the commission is on the verge of a decision as to whether or not to sue the premier search engine website.
Within the story, reporter Dan Simon highlights a recent episode of the CBS’ drama “The Good Wife”. This episodes premise revolves around a giant search engine being taken to court by a small-time software business. The suit being that the big search engine unjustly buried the small business in its search results.
According to Simon this is a case of life imitating art (or vise versa, you’re call). As the show’s central storyline in that particular episode parallels many of the true life accusations raised against Google.
As far as we can tell, in both Europe and the United States, Antitrust authorities are investigating if Google purposely manipulates its own search rankings and results. Specifically looking into if the website doctors its data to feature its own products more prominently. If they are cooking the books, the collateral damage would mean that Google’s competitors have suffered as a result.
Simon then went on to detail the difficult questions that Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt was asked during his Senate subcommittee testimony this past year.
Schmidt has stated numerous times that he disagrees with the characterization of favoritism within his company. Implying that by continuously updating, Google will eventually get to the correct answer for all user queries. That it will lead the user to the best search results, regardless of the company’s personal stake.
Not everyone is buying that though. One company that has been very vocal about its displeasure with Google is Yelp. Yelp is a website that lets users both search and review local restaurants and businesses. A feature that Google now provides.
Jeremy Stoppelman, the CEO of Yelp, appeared at that same hearing as Schmidt. In his testimony Stoppelman said that his top concern was that Google is delivering answers that are particularly advantageous to their own company.
Stoppelman continued, “What we’re most concerned about is that Google is no longer satisfied with pointing users to the best content anywhere on the web it can be found. Instead, it seems they prefer to send users to the most profitable content on the web which is naturally their own.”
Simon went on to describe a scenario. He starts by saying that perhaps you’re searching for Chinese food in the Washington, D.C. Area on Google. If you look at the top of your page results, Google lists a variety of restaurants, most with links to reviews. The problem is that they are Google reviews. If you happen to click any of them, you are taken to a web page via the Google Plus social media platform. From there you can read a variety of reviews from Zagat. Which is a company owned by (wait for it) Google. While there is a “6 Degrees of Separation” feel here, it does seem that there is some nepotism to be found.
Simon states in the report that this is not always the case. In some circumstances other competitors will pop up first.
The issue remains though that Google more often than not is driving traffic to a variety of products and services. According to Simon, it is far from a level playing field.
The story then moves to interviewing Rory Little, a law professor at Hastings College. Little states that when a business starts to develop a large share of the market, they start to look like they are able to control their competition. This is something that governmental agencies look into.
The counterpoint to that, as Simon points out, is that Google is holding tight on their stance that they are delivering helpful information for free. The verdict remains to be seen, but regardless if it’s fines, lawsuits, or possible mandates to the way the company operates, there is a lot at stake when it comes to Google.
As it stands today, Google is still king. That’s not going to change any time soon. Two-thirds of all searches done online within the United States are made on Google. What this boils down to is that with great power, comes great responsibility. It remains to be seen if Google is still using its power for what’s best for users, or what’s best for Google.