US federal regulators have closed a 20-month probe of Google’s search business without finding the company to have taken unfair advantage of its leading position.
Google's settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) includes voluntary fixes to the way the search king uses content from other sites, ending a 20-month investigation. Expedia, Microsoft, and Yelp were among the lead critics, belonging to a coalition called FairSearch.org.
Senators had urged the FTC to check whether Google unfairly preferences its search results, favoring its own products in vertical search.
As consumer surveys show most users click on one of the first three links, this preferencing could have been seen as an anti-competitive practice had the committee also deemed Google to be a monopoly given that it runs some two-thirds of American internet searches.
Critics now must turn to state attorneys general or the Justice Department for recourse, though they may not have much success given this settlement.
In an afternoon press conference, regulators said "evidence does not support a claim" ... that Google practiced "search bias."
Quoted Federal Trade Commission’s Chairman Jon Leibowitz:
"The focus of our law is on protecting competition, not competitors. Although some evidence suggested google was trying to eliminiate competiiotn, Google's primary reason for changing its look and feel or algorithm was to improve search results."
The board made its decision unanimously.
The FTC received 9 million pages of testimony on the Google investigation. That's 122 times as long as U.S. tax code. Some of the evidence suggested that, when content owners complained about Google's so-called screen scraping of their content, such as Yelp's restaurant reviews, they alleged Google threatened to remove them from search results. But that didn't merit sanction.
A parallel investigation is underway by European regulators, with talks underway and a settlement expected by the end of January. Microsoft has told the the European Commission that Google is trying to "entrench its dominance" on the Internet by engaging
"in a broadening pattern of walling off access to content and data that competitors need to provide search results to consumers and to attract advertisers."
Google spokespeople have countered in the US and Europe that competition is a "click away" on consumers' computers, and that Google dominates the market not because it illegally controls the market, but because it provides the "best, most relevant answers to queries."
They also cast doubt on the likelihood that any company could be harmed by Google because the company directs huge volumes of traffic to its site for free via editorial listings.
Some 'voluntary' changes from the settlement
Google will voluntarily allow publishers, such as Yelp, to stop it from including snippets of synopses of reviews and related content in its search results with an opt-out that will be similar to what Google allows with opt-outs from its News service.
Google is also simplifying the process for advertisers to port their rates and bidding data to rival advertising networks, such as Microsoft’s Bing, making it easier for users of Google AdWords to compare data from ad campaigns across search engines.
FTC is not providing long-term oversight over Google, though there are some monitoring requirements.