Jeff Katz, the CEO of Nextag who formerly headed Orbitz and Swissair, picked a fight with Google in the runup to a July 2 European Union deadline.
Or maybe Google picked a fight with Nextag, depending on your perspective.
Google, which Katz characterized as a "monopoly" in a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, must respond to the EU about its competition concerns before July 2.
Acknowledging that Google algorithmic changes -- including Panda and Penguin -- hurt his shopping comparison site, Katz recited familiar arguments that Google "has stacked the deck," giving preference to its own products and certain advertisers ahead of the most relevant results.
It is interesting to note that when Katz's Orbitz.com launched more than a decade ago, it boasted that its flight search results broke new ground because they were presented in an unbiased manner.
Katz wrote in The Wall Street Journal June 7:
Most people believe that when they type 'convection microwave oven' or 'biking shorts' into Google, they will receive a list of the most relevant sites. Not true. That's how Google used to work. Now, when someone searches for these items, the most prominent results are displayed because companies paid Google for that privilege. In addition, Google often uses its prime real estate to promote its own (often less relevant and inferior) products and services, prohibiting companies from buying its best advertisements.
Katz also labeled Google a "brand killer," repeating arguments he and a TripAdvisor representative made before the US Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
Where things get real interesting is Katz offered some concrete recommendations to the EU, contending:
- Google should be required to abandon its "forked-tongued gobbledegook" and disclose "in plain English" when a search result is a Google product and when advertisers get preferential placement;
- Google should empower users with the ability to reduce the number of ads displayed and "should provide consumers with access to the unbiased search results it was once known for...", and
- Google should offer all companies a level playing field and "should grant all companies equal access to advertising opportunities regardless of whether they are considered a competitor."
Amit Singhal, Google senior vice president, engineering, answered Katz in a blog post
- Organic results are never skewed by commercial factors, and users get the most relevant results, whether they are "a direct answer" [including those from Google products] or from a competitor's site;
- Google changes its algorithms "to help users, not websites" and publishes "a monthly list of algorithmic improvements."
- Google does not prohibit competitors from advertising on Google properties and some of its largest advertisers are competitors.
It is interesting that Singhal of Google doesn't directly answer two of Katz's complaints -- that Google should cease preferencing its own products and allow users to reduce the number of ads they see.
On both questions, Singhal basically says -- take it or leave it.
Bing and Yahoo, too, expanded beyond "ten blue links" and "if users don't like our results, they can try Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, or even Google Minus Google," Singhal writes.
And regarding Katz's complaints that Google is hogging prime real estate with its own products, Singhal writes:
It’s understandable that every website believes that it is the best, and wants to rank at the top of Google results. The great thing about the openness of the Internet is that if users don’t find our results relevant and useful, they can easily navigate to Nextag, Amazon, Yelp, Bing or any other website.
That's easy for Google to say -- when it is the dominant search engine in town.