A report on Google's search practices by the US Federal Trade Commission's bureau of competition has been accidentally obtained by the Wall Street Journal.
The report supports antitrust claims made a few years ago by travel companies that Google used its monopoly power in search to punish and threaten rivals in travel and other consumer industries.
The investigation found evidence that Google demoted rivals like travel reviews platform TripAdvisor and restaurant and local reviews platform Yelp in search results. Google also scraped both sites' content illegally.
As Tnooz reported at the time, officials from TripAdvisor and Yelp told a US Senate antitrust panel three years ago that Google threatened to shut them out of search altogether if they didn’t provide their content to Google Places.
Ultimately the evidence wasn't enough to convince the regulators that Google needed to be sued or fined. Regulators did not find the company to have taken unfair advantage of its leading position.
The final verdict cleared the company.
But the leaked report gives insight into the tactics that regulators debated suing over.
Regulators took serious claims by travel companies, represented by the lobby FairSearch, that Google was aggressive. Reports the WSJ:
"In discussing one of the issues the FTC staff wanted to sue over, the report said the company illegally took content from rival websites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor Inc. and Amazon to improve its own websites. ...
When competitors asked Google to stop taking their content, Google threatened to remove them from its search engine....
“It is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect,” the report said, “which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down.” The company also sent a message that it would “use its monopoly power over search to extract the fruits of its rivals’ innovations.”
The hardball tactics that the government considered suing over didn't end there: Adds the WSJ:
"When Yelp was deemed relevant to a user’s search query, Google Local would pop up on top of the results page, the FTC staff wrote."
The FTC report also criticized the promotion of the Google Flights tool above the comparison shopping engines offered on rival sites in its search results.
In the end, Google won its argument that the cost for consumers to switch to rival sources of information, such as online travel agency Expedia or TripAdvisor, was nothing. The FTC board exonerated the company in a unanimous decision that consumers weren't being harmed.
But the settlement with the FTC did include voluntary fixes to the way Google uses content from other sites.
For instance, Google voluntarily allowed companies, such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, to stop it from including snippets of synopses of reviews and related content in its search results with an opt-out.
The company also says its search practices have since changed. The European Commission has its own ongoing antitrust probe.
WSJ: Inside the U.S. Antitrust Probe of Google
WSJ: How Google Skewed Search Results
Tnooz: TripAdvisor says Google threatened search lock-out
Tnooz: Google reaches a truce with US regulators on antitrust probe
NB: Image of "credibility ebbing and flowing" byopensourceway/Flickr via Creative Commons license.