Why Google’s Biggest Problem with ‘Search Plus Your World’ Isn’t Antitrust

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Last week Google lit up the blogosphere with controversy when it introduced tighter integration between its Google+ social network and its organic search results. The main charge is that the new service – called Google Search Plus Your World (in an apparent adoption of Microsoft’s product naming strategy) – favors Google+ content at the expense of rival social networks, and that given a monopoly position in search, that amounts to an antitrust violation.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center – the same group that tried to shut down Gmail when it was first launched in 2004 – said it would soon be filing a formal complaint with the FTC. The FTC, however, wasted no time in announcing that it is expanding an existing investigation to include Search Plus Your World (SPYW). Google does have a big problem on its hands, but it’s not an antitrust problem; it’s market reaction.

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Google is not violating antitrust law, first and foremost, because it does not have a monopoly on search. The company has a 65 percent share of the market, which is big, but not monopoly big. More to the point, that share has been steadily declining while Bing’s market share has been increasing. That fact leads to another point: Users face no barrier in switching from Google to a competing search engine. Unlike the proverbial “only bridge in town,” Google has no special hold on its users.

It’s also the case that there are no barriers to entry in the search market. Microsoft built Bing in little time, and while it had a rocky start, it’s comparable to Google today. Launching a new search engine would be a capital and technology intensive endeavor, but a completely feasible one for the likes of Apple (with it’s $81 billion of cash on hand), Facebook, or even Amazon.

So if antitrust is not Google’s main concern, what is? It’s that user reaction to SPYW and other recent moves may invite the very switching and competitive entry that would have to be impossible for monopoly to hold.

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User dissatisfaction with Google has been simmering under the surface for some time now. I saw the first signs of open revolt last month on John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, which linked to this screenshot of a Google search. It shows a search for “gold price” dominated by ads. Below it is the same search on Wolfram Alpha, which displays the relevant information you’d expect.

“God. I am getting so fed up with Google,” wrote the searcher, Rick Webb. “I experience this at least once a day now for a variety of things. I may not be done with Google yet, but I can see the day I will be on the horizon, and I am looking forward to it.”

Over the past month I’ve seen such sentiments bubble up here and there consistently. SPYW has apparently broken the camel’s back.

Writing on Gizmodo, Mat Honan says that SPYW has led him to switch his default search engine to Bing, and notes that Bing is a lot like the uncluttered Google of yesteryear. Dave Winer offers this diagnosis: “Google’s search is getting cluttered with pointless crap. I think they forgot that when Google launched all the existing search engines were similarly cluttered, and they offered two things. 1. Something really nice called Page Rank and 2. No clutter.”

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The increasing clutter in search results – well cataloged by Carl Franzen – was something that folks like Rick Webb put up with, but what if they could no longer count on Page Rank? If nothing else, SPYW may be giving users the impression that results are no longer “unbiased.”

“Back when search wasn’t personalized, Google could defensibly say that one service was better than another because it got more traffic, was linked to more (better PageRank), and so on,” writes search expert John . “Back when everyone got the same results and the web was one homogenous glob of HTML, well, you could claim ‘this is the best result for the general population.’ But personalized search has broken that framework.”

Yet as Google biographer Steven Levy explains, if Google’s mission is to organize and make accessible all the world’s information, then personalized social search is an essential part of that. So Google finds itself in a Catch 22. It knows social and personalized are the future of search, but in order to implement it, it has to undercut the simplicity and “objectivity” that led to its success.

Users, however, may not wait for the company to get it right. They can and will switch. And sensing a weakness, new competitors may well enter the search space. The market, therefore, will discipline Google faster than any antitrust action could.

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