Search giant Google, Inc. has announced that it will work to resolve what it described as a “bug” that pushed competitors far down the list of search results while promoting the company’s own results. Executives from TripAdvisor and Yelp complained on Twitter over the weekend that Google had changed its search software so as to prioritize Google products over those of its rivals. The issue was specific to Google’s location search function, which compiles results and reviews for restaurants and other local venues. Google’s primary competitors in this space are the more established TripAdvisor and Yelp, which have long offered similar services.
The executives demonstrated that even search queries that specifically reference their companies, such as “yelp Costco,” do not return results from these pages at or near the top of the list of search results. They accused Google of intentionally diverting traffic to its own services even when users clearly intended to visit one of the rival sites. Google has denied that the change was intentional.
A Google spokeswoman told Recode,
The issues cited were caused by a recent code push, which we’re working quickly to fix.
Some industry experts have expressed doubts that the reordering of search results was accidental. Travis Katz, who heads the firm Gogobot, another local search provider, pointed out that neither his company nor rival Foursquare were affected by the change. He said that this makes it “unlikely” that the issue was the result of a bug, since it seemed to exclusively target Yelp and TripAdvisor. Google is currently being investigated by European anti-trust authorities for manipulating the results of its shopping search service, and officials have suggested that this may be expanded to include Google’s local search product.
This summer, Yelp published a set of documents in which it accused the search giant of engaging in anti-competitive practices, and urged federal regulators to investigate. The company argued that,
The easy and widely disseminated argument that Google’s universal search always serves users and merchants is demonstrably false… Google appears to be strategically deploying universal search in a way that degrades the product so as to slow and exclude challengers to its dominant search paradigm.
A 2012 anti-trust investigation by the Federal Trade Commission did not result in legal action against Google. However, an unredacted version of the report that was inadvertently released this summer showed that investigators had found that Google had abused its monopoly power by systematically engaging in a variety of anti-competitive practices that “resulted—and will result—in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets.” Investigators from the Commission’s bureau of competition recommended that the F.T.C. pursue legal action against the company over three, separate practices. In an unusual move, the Commission closed the investigation without taking the actions recommended by its investigators.
Read more about the current allegations against Google here – “Google ‘Bug’ Buries Competitors Yelp and TripAdvisor,” (Alex Hern, The Guardian).
Read more about the 2012 F.T.C. investigation here – “Inside the U.S. Antitrust Probe of Google,” (Brody Mullins, Rolfe Winkler, and Brent Kendall; The Wall Street Journal).