Poor performance in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) is generally considered to be the fault of either poor search engine optimisation or winning SEO on the behalf of a keyword competitor. Yet the possibility that Google is actively demoting some companies has been raised more than once – and this time, it has been taken seriously by official regulators in the US.
Given Google’s dominance of the search market both worldwide and in the US (between 60% and 70% depending on the statistics cited), concerns over a possible monopoly have been common since before the company became so popular its brand name was recognised as an active verb in the 2006 Oxford English Dictionary. These concerns have only become more widespread as Google has expanded outside of its core search service into a range of verticals, from comparison shopping to image search and local business listings.
To date though, most investigations by US regulators have focused upon how Google’s business deals with former competitors or companies offering complementary services could create a monopoly, such as when the company acquired AdMob in 2009.
Yet The Guardian reports that outside of Washington, county regulators in the state of Texas have launched an investigation into allegations that Google is arbitrarily manipulating SERPs to demote rival companies. Last week, Google’s deputy general counsel Don Harrison publicly acknowledged that the company had been approach by the office of Greg Abbott, the Texas Attorney General, regarding an ongoing anti-trust review.
Harrison says that three companies – Foundem, a UK price comparison site and US companies SourceTool/Tradecomet and myTriggers, a B2B and price comparison search engine respectively – have accused the company of anti-competitive behaviour by downgrading their search rankings. myTriggers has also alleged that Google has downgraded its PPC ads, though Harrison says that recent information suggests their reduced traffic was due to myTrigger’s own servers overheating.
Interestingly, according to Harrison all three companies have a strong link to Microsoft; Foundem is backed by an organisation largely funded by the software giant, whilst the two US companies are represented by “longtime Microsoft antitrust attorneys”.
“The important thing to remember is that we built Google to provide the most useful, relevant search results and ads for users,” he says in his post. “Given that not every website can be at the top of the results, or even appear on the first page of our results, it’s unsurprising that some less relevant, lower quality websites will be unhappy with their ranking.”
Google has already faced such investigations elsewhere. As reported in the Guardian, in June the EU’s leading competition official said he would investigate claims from Microsoft and two other companies about their sites being unfairly demoted in SERPs on Google.
As with the Texas case, these companies were price comparison or vertical search sites that felt their rankings were due to poor performance in Google on terms where Google’s own products outranked them.