Google v Regulators: The battle begins
It's been predicted for years - and now it has finally happened. The company that many see as the most powerful force on the internet - and some believe abuses that power - is being investigated by a major competition regulator.
The EU has launched an inquiry into complaints that Google has favoured its own price comparison services at the expense of rivals. The charge, from companies like Foundem, is that users searching for something like "best price for Canon cameras" see results from Google's own shopping service ranked far above links to rival comparison sites, and that sponsored links also come out higher.
The rivals believe that when Google claims that its search algorithm is a completely objective device, simply hunting down the best results for users, that's hokum. Instead, they say, it's tailored to meet the voracious commercial ambitions of its creator. The case for the prosecution has been rehearsed over the past few months in this blog funded by Foundem.
The inner workings of Google's PageRank system will now presumably be examined by investigators in Brussels, although they will find that it's a moving target, chaging almost every day.
Google appears to have learned from the mistakes of other high-profile American targets of the EU regulators. Instead of greeting the news of the inquiry with outrage and bluster, it has issued a diplomatic statement, stressing that it always does its best to make sure everything in its search business works accurately and fairly but "there's always going to be room for improvement, and so we'll be working with the Commission to address any concerns."
But the search giant obviously thinks the accusations are baseless. Insiders say price comparison sites like Foundem don't come top in searches for a good reason. Someone searching for, say, a hotel room in Barcelona, wants to be taken direct to sites in Barcelona, not to a price comparison site where they can then begin their search again. And the case for the defence is amplified in this post by Danny Sullivan oon his Search Engine Land site.
This is just the very beginning of what is likely to be a very lengthy investigation - and we are a long way from seeing any penalties imposed on Google. But any company which has the power and dominance in a market that the search engine giant enjoys is bound to attract the attention of the regulators. Microsoft, for example, was at war with the competition authorities in Washington and then Brussels for more than a decade.
Now they are turning their sights on a new behemoth. How ironic that it's happening just as Facebook is beginning to challenge Google's status as a web superpower. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should start hiring some competition lawyers in readiness for its turn in the firing line.