Google turned to its signature travel acquisition, its 2011 purchase of flight shopping engine ITA Software for $700 million, which forms the foundation of Google Flight Search, to kick off its public defense of the European Commission’s leveling of antitrust charges against the search engine giant.
Amit Singhal, senior vice president of Google Search, led off his defense of Google’s practices in a blog post by showing how a consumer searching Google for “flight CDG to SFO” would “get the different options right there on the results page.”
“It’s a great example of Google’s increasing ability to answer queries directly, saving people a lot of time and effort — because as [Google CEO] Larry Page said over a decade ago ‘the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want.'”
Here’s the issue in a screenshot:
Google’s own flight search product dominates the search results real estate for flights from Paris, France to San Francisco while CheapOair, Travelzoo, and BookingBuddy pay for smaller, sponsored links to the right, and Kayak’s organic results hug the bottom of the screen, struggling for recognition, clicks and site traffic.
Expedia, Cheapflights, and Priceline’s organic results appear even lower on the page out of view in the screenshot, dropping into relative obscurity.
It’s obvious that the majority of clicks go to Google’s own Google Flights in this example. The box of flight search results is labeled “Sponsored” (it wasn’t always so designated) and the flight options indeed appear really quickly on the screen.
Under this setup, consumers alternatively would have to navigate to Expedia.com, Kayak.com or Skyscanner.com and restart their flight search from those sites.
But while Google is getting all of that competitive juice for its own pecuniary interests and supposed consumer good, does it really serve the public interest and fair competition?
What if travelers prefer Hipmunk’s flight options, Expedia’s, Kayak’s or Skyscanner’s? Given Google’s search engine dominance shouldn’t these other companies be afforded an equal shot?
One could argue, for example, that Hipmunk displays its flight results in a much more consumer-friendly manner than Google Flight Search does.
In essence, Google is arguing that it knows best what the best options are for consumers. Google gets to decide.
Not-so shockingly, when Google owns a competitive product, such as Google Flights, Google Hotel Finder, or Google Local for restaurants (powered by Google-owned Zagat and the former Frommer’s editorial team), it’s always the Google product that gets top billing and shelf space.
Signhal of Google argues that Google Flight Search didn’t turn out to be a competition killer as Expedia, Kayak, and Travelocity supposedly argued when trying to block Google’s acquisition of ITA Software.
“While Google may be the most used search engine, people can now find and access information in numerous different ways — and allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved to be wide of the mark,” Singhal wrote.
But as Rob Krolik, Yelp’s CFO, told attendees at an investment conference in March, the company believes it will succeed despite Google’s roadblocks. Yelp gets about half of its site traffic from Google.
“Consumers are fighting through their [Google’s] content to get to ours,” Krolik said.
Reacting to the European Commission statement of objections about Google practices, TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer states: “We are pleased that the Commission is continuing its ongoing formal investigation into Google’s anti-competitive behavior and its restrictions on search results.
“Google engages in preferencing and manipulates search results so that consumers see content that benefits Google, not the best content for consumers. This practice harms consumers and competition, and must be ended. Today’s announcement by the Commissioner is the first step to making search on Google better for consumers. We will continue to work with the European Commission to assist them with their work.
“TripAdvisor has always had a commitment to transparent access to information and a level playing field for all. Now more than ever we stand by the importance of those principles.”
Asked whether he’d like to see the FTC reopen its Google probe, Kaufer said: “We’d be pleased if the U.S. investigation were opened again with respect to search preferencing. We were disappointed that the FTC closed the investigation.”
Singhal, Google’s blogger, points out that Yelp has seen 350 percent revenue growth over the last four years and gets 40 percent of its traffic from the Yelp mobile app.
He says TripAdvisor has nearly doubled its revenues during the same period and Expedia has notched revenue growth of 67 percent in the last four years.
For the record, none of these companies ever argued that Google’s practices would kill them although they did state that they would be disadvantaged. And they protested Google’s unauthorized use of their content in the Google Local and Google Plus products.
Now European authorities will press Google to make substantial changes.