A previously undisclosed report from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission detailed some of the many ways that Google Inc. manipulated its search results to promote its own services at the expense of its rivals. The report was part of a "lengthy" investigation, according to The Wall Street Journal, yet no complaint or lawsuits will be filed against the company.
Google has a reputation for presenting honest search engine results, but the report indicates the company has been willing to do whatever it took to boost its services—even if its internal algorithms would have otherwise returned results more beneficial to its users.
Examples include Google altering its ranking criteria in a way that was artificially tailored to its own services; going so far as to "scrape" content from other sites—i.e. stealing it without a license; and artificially demoting rival services. The report found, for instance, that if Yelp results were top ranked, Google would simply place its own Google Local services above that of Yelp. Mission accomplished.
On the anything-goes side of the business fence, some might feel that Google should be free to promote its own services on its own site any time it wants. On the side of the fence that understands an economy must be regulated to prevent abuse from those with power and money is the simple issue of Google's dominance in search in the U.S. and Europe, where regulators have also criticized Google's practices.
The ironic thing is that Google earned that dominance by presenting unbiased results that reflected the way that we, the users, search the Web. Having earned that dominance, though, Google apparently wants to hoodwink users into thinking its services are better or more desirable than competitors, even when they aren't.
For its part, Google maintains it has done nothing wrong, and characterized these manipulated search results as just part of an ongoing effort to tweak its results. In a statement delivered to The Journal, Google General Counsel Kent Walker said:
After an exhaustive 19-month review, covering nine million pages of documents and many hours of testimony, the FTC staff and all five FTC Commissioners agreed that there was no need to take action on how we rank and display search results.
We regularly change our search algorithms and make over 500 changes a year to help our users get the information they want. We created search for users, not websites—and that focus has driven our improvements over the last decade.
That's one way to read this report.
Who Will Regulate the Regulators?
It remains to be seen if the FTC will actually do anything about the behavior it documented. While European regulators have been aggressive with Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and other U.S. tech giants when their corporate practices clashed with consumer protections, U.S. regulators have largely taken a hands-off approach during the last two administrations, one from each U.S. political party.
Even though the report found, "that Google's conduct has resulted—and will result—in real harm to consumers and to innovation," and that Google, "adopted a strategy of demoting or refusing to display links to certain vertical websites in highly commercial category," the FTC still said, "We do not recommend that the commission issue a complaint against Google for this conduct."
Wrap your head around that. Protecting consumers and innovation is part of the FTC's charter, yet the Commission won't issue a complaint against Google for behavior that it said will harm both consumers and innovation.