The New York Times reported this morning that the Federal Trade Commission is preparing a recommendation that the government sue Google for allegedly manipulating search results to favor its own products and big brand shopping websites. The investigation, which began more than a year ago, is the most far-reaching antitrust investigation of a corporation since the landmark federal case against Microsoft in the late 1990s.
Google has been accused of using its vast power over the Internet to give unfair advantage to certain advertisers, namely big name shopping sites and companies which they own, and to discriminate against small business Adwords advertisers competing in the same verticals. While the mainstream media makes it appear that this is a recent development, Google have, in reality, been perfecting their technique for manipulating search results since as far back as 2004, all under the guise of “providing a better search experience.”
In December 2004, just before the big Christmas rush for online shoppers, Darren Rowse of Problogger.net lost more than two-thirds of the traffic to his digital camera website. For those who aren’t familiar with Rowse he’s one of the most respected bloggers on the Internet. So for Google to claim there were “quality issues” with his site is like saying Nike doesn’t know how to make athletic shoes.
Rowse, however, sucked it up because at that time, no one really suspected that Google might be using their powers for evil. Remember, the changes were all being made to “improve the experience for the searcher.”
A few years passed and on February 25, 2009, Aaron Wall of SEOBook.com published a revealing post. After yet another of Google’s famous updates, Google Executive Chariman Eric Schmidt was asked about Google’s agenda regarding brands and cleaning up the Internet.
“The internet is fast becoming a ‘cesspool’ where false information thrives,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt said yesterday. Speaking with an audience of magazine executives visiting the Google campus here as part of their annual industry conference, he said their brands were increasingly important signals that content can be trusted.”
“Brands are the solution, not the problem,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”
“Brand affinity is clearly hard wired,” he said. “It is so fundamental to human existence that it’s not going away. It must have a genetic component.
Using a rank checking tool, Wall also made a few startling discoveries. Small business websites and blogs that had previously been ranking for generic keywords were now being replaced in the search engine results pages (SERPS) by big name brands. For example, for the generic keyword “health insurance” the un-brand website healthinsurancefinders.com was bumped down the list and Eatna.com appeared over night, from out of nowhere, at the number two spot.
In December 2010, Google launched Google Instant which presumed to read searchers’ minds and help them with their typing. All you had to do was go to your Google search box and start typing and, based on the letters you entered Google would provide the most popular search terms. Now you didn’t need to waste all the time pecking around on your keyboard, you could just type A or B or Z and Google would show you the most popular search terms.
When they were accused of using Google Instant to manipulate search results, Google’s head of search, Amit Sinhal, denied the allegations, stating that the reason Amazon or Target kept popping up when searchers typed in A or T was because they were the most logical results based on statistics.
However, Courtney Mills at IneedHits.com found that for 21 out of the 26 letters of the alphabet, the first suggestion that came up was always a name brand.
Moving ahead to February and March of 2011 when Google unleashed their Panda and Farmer updates even more small business sites were dropped from the SERPs while big brand websites moved up to take their place.
TheFind, ShopWiki, BizRate, Kaboodle, and Shopping.com, all competitors of Google Shopping. Merchant Circle, InsiderPages, American Towns, Roadside America and CitiTownInfo, competitors of Google Maps. TravelPod, MyTravelGuide and Trails.com, in direct competition with Google Places. Dozens of high ranking article directories and answer sites. All of these sites were removed from the Google index or buried so deep they were no longer a threat.
An in-depth article at GrowMap.com by on February 27, 2011 states that Internet shopping search engine TheFind.com showed more than 4,400 stores with over 138,000 matching results when searching for the keyword “business card holders” but Google only showed five results. And those five results were Amazon, eBags, Buy.com, Walmart and Office Depot, all big brand online shopping sites.
In a similar GrowMap article inspired by eCommerce expert Rob Snell, author of “Yahoo! Stores for Dummies” the author states “Google KNOWS which of your keyword phrases convert! And they’re taking that converting traffic away from small business and handing it to their big brand buddies.”
In essence, Google Adwords advertisers are paying high bid rates for exact match keyword phrases. After the advertisers do the legwork to promote those keywords, Google is handing them over to the favored big brand stores allowing them to highjack the searchers, even if the ads aren’t relevant. And typically Google helps them along by initiating another of the famous “updates” during the peak of the holiday season, just in time for those big brand stores to snag the lion’s share of the business, crushing small business websites who rely on those holiday sales.
According to the New York Times, the FTC has been questioning NexTag, a comparison shopping service that, since June, has been known as Wize Commerce. NexTag executives say in the last year their online traffic coming from Google search has fallen by half.
Google’s answer is, they’re trying to clean up the Web and eliminate spam and weak content, and make the Internet a more pleasing place for searchers to hang out. By doing so, and by implementing all their complicated algorithms, they’re merely making it easier for people to search the Web and quickly find what they’re looking for.
Google said in a statement on Friday, “We are happy to answer any questions that regulators have about our business.” In the past it has said many times that “competition is a click away.”
But what they don’t say is that they’re burying the links. The only sites that are “one click away” are the sites Google wants you to see. Google is cleaning up the web and they are making it easier for users to find what they’re looking for because they’re eliminating most of the competition so they can create a perfect Utopian society on the Internet.
But top quality websites are disappearing from the Web over night. Small business advertisers who typically spend $300 in a month are watching their coffers get sucked dry in a single day, with zero return on their investment because Google gave the keywords to their competitors and their ads are being shown on parked webpages.
If the FTC does decide to pursue the lawsuit, the New York Times says, “The most probable outcome of the antitrust investigations of Google,” antitrust experts say, “is a settlement. The broad principle, would be an agreement not to discriminate in favor of its products over smaller competitors.”
The commission staff currently has a 100-page report drafted which is still being reviewed and the FTC is in the process of hiring a legal team to take Google to court. Three out of the five FTC commissioners would be required to vote in favor of the lawsuit before any action can be taken. Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC said a final decision will be made before the end of this year.
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