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Google was adamant that it needed to compete in local search and it didn't mind playing hardball with Yelp, TripAdvisor, CitySearch, and others to get its way.

Internal emails and the findings of a Federal Trade Commission staff report on its antitrust investigation of Google show how Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Amazon resisted Google’s “unlawful” practice of stealing their reviews and other content.

The August 2012 FTC bureau of competition staff report, obtained by the Wall Street Journal and embedded below, also details that Google Local executives wanted Google to acquire Yelp but were “rebuffed” by Google higher-ups, and an email from from Eric Schmidt, seemingly when he was still Google CEO, has him agreeing to spend a suggested $100 million or so to build up Google Local after a deal for Yelp’s content fell through.

Any discussions around Google acquiring Yelp apparently took place before Google ultimately decided to acquire Zagat and Frommer’s digital assets in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

The Back Story

In late 2006, Google decided it needed reviews, addresses, photos, and operating hours of local businesses to win in local search over rivals and, after a couple of years of trying, Google really wasn’t making much progress in building up its user review database. Google eventually revamped Google Maps and Google Local to attract reviews, and seeded them with user reviews from Yelp and TripAdvisor, among others, without attribution or permission, the FTC report states.

Google knew that Yelp and TripAdvisor would be angry about Google launching a competitive product using their reviews as a foundation, and Yelp even eliminated a data feed to Google, the report states, but Google scraped the data anyway. Yelp eventually sent Google a cease and desist letter and started to complain about Google’s practices publicly.

Google’s Conduct

The FTC report notes that Google threatened to remove sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor entirely from Google search results if they didn’t agree to allow their content, including user reviews, to be used in Google Local.

Yelp, TripAdvisor, and CitySearch sought removal of their user review content from Google Places, which was a competitor. Google told each company that if they wanted to have their content removed from Google Places, they would also have to exclude their websites from being crawled by Google altogether, which meant complete exclusion from Google’s search results in any form.

“While Google never followed through on its threat to remove these websites entirely from its web search results, it is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect (for a significant period of time), which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down on their efforts to have their valuable content removed from the Google Local product,” the FTC report states. “Google’s threat also sent a message to the broader marketplace that Google could, and would, use its monopoly power over search to extract the fruits of its rivals’ innovations.”

The Email Trail

Emails from Yelp, Amazon and within Google about the scraping issue, and also some emails about Google’s practice of giving its own travel, shopping,  finance, and local products preference over competitors’ websites in Google search results, can be found in the FTC report’s footnotes, although sometimes the dates of the emails aren’t particularly clear.

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman email to John Hanke, then-vice president product management for Google GEO, including Maps, Google Earth, Street View and Google Local: “In the interest of giving us enough time to negotiate in good faith, I’d like to request that you remove our review and photo content from Google Maps before launching your feature next week. We’re very uncomfortable with Google launching a directly competitive feature and we’d like to opt out while discussing what might be done to alleviate our concerns.”

Eric Schmidt email to John Hanke after Yelp declines to allow Google to use its content:  “As you can see the deal is apparently off … [instead we need to] continue to build a great reviews product here at Google.”

Hanke replies via email to Schmidt: “We’ll come to the oc in jan w/ a plan. My sense is that we should be prepared to invest some real money ($100M?) building this up. It will require us spending on things (community managers as well as technologists, city-by-city community building, city-by-city marketing) that have been hard for us to wrap our arms around and commit to in the past. … ”

Eric Schmidt to Hanke email: “Thanks. I completely agree with your approach here and will definitely fund it !! thanks.”

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman to Google: ” … I noticed you’re still using excerpts of our review content in local without license and counting them as Google ‘reviews,’ yet you’ve demoted Yelp to the bottom regardless of freshness. Happy to discuss, but we’re not ok with this use of our content.”

Marissa Mayer, then-vice president of Google Local, Maps and Location Services to Yelp’s Stoppelman (although the precise context isn’t clear): “We do not have the ability to immediately customize which search features a website is included in.”

Steven Shure, Amazon vice president of worldwide marketing, to Google, complaining about the unauthorized use of customers’ product reviews and ratings: “As I said on our call, we would like Google to no longer display or incorporate the Amazon product reviews information, including text and stars/ratings, which it ingests [through] its natural search crawl, within Google Product Search …. We ask that you remove the review excerpts from the display and the star ratings from your overall product rating calculation. Their current use is without Amazon’s permission .. .. We would like you to get back to us in a week, by September 30, with a date by which Google will be able to remove Amazon review information from product search. . .. On the surface it would seem that we are simply asking you to make a change which directly parallels the recent changes Google has made in displaying Yelp reviews in Google Places …. Amazon’s product review content represents a similar proprietary asset and we do not want it to appear in Google Product Search.”

Internal Google email exchange about how to respond to Amazon: ”We are preparing to remove Amazon’s product reviews since they gave us until Friday of next week.”

Someone at Google responds: “Let’s tell Amazon that we were planning to change (the user interface anyway, but since we are a few weeks away from making revisions and because of (technical uncertaintyj we will in the meantime take their content out of Product pages by [date] … stress that we’re doing this out of respect for the relationship, but that our decision doesn’t represent a change in policy.:

FTC Staff Findings

The FTC competition staff found that Google’s scraping of content from third-party sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Amazon without permission was anticompetitive and “unlawful,” and recommended that the FTC sue Google over this and other competition issues.

Google also engaged in a campaign to preference its own travel, shopping, finance and local products over competitors’ websites in Google search results — a practice that persists today, although there have been many modifications.

The FTC competition staff wrote of this practice: “Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission issue a complaint against Google for this conduct.”

Google engaged in an extraordinary lobbying campaign to thwart a lawsuit, including at least weekly meetings between its executives and lobbyists and senior FTC and White House officials.

The FTC dropped the probe without going to court.

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Tags: amazon, ftc, google, tripadvisor, yelp

Photo credit: Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt smiles during a meeting about the "right to be forgotten" in Madrid. Daniel Ochoa de Olza / Associated Press

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