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Google has argued for years that its boxed-up and featured hotel, flight, and restaurant results are highlighted because they provide users with the "best answers." But in Europe, regulators may have pushed Google to acquiesce, offering its competitors some air time in its featured results by testing direct links.

In Europe, where Google is facing strong regulatory pressure, it is testing adding free direct links to competitor websites above its own preferentially displayed hotel, vacation rental, flight, and tour package products.

Google is making these tweaks to the controversial way it has for the last several years given primacy to its own businesses with a featured box of search results that usually appear right below paid ads, but above free organic results from competitors. These featured results lead users to Google’s own one-stop-shop travel pages, where it often collects fees when consumers click on advertisers’ paid links.

Here’s a photo of the Google beta test, featuring links to Holidaylettings, HomeAway, and above the Google map inside a Google one-box of highlighted vacation rental results.

The Holidaylettings, HomeAway, and links take users directly to those sites while the and links have consumers navigating further into the Google travel universe.

The backdrop for the tests is that a Google appeal of a European Commission $2.62 billion (euro 2.4 billion) fine for allegedly biasing its shopping results is taking place in Luxembourg this week. However, Google is believed to have begun the tests of travel competitors direct links several months ago.

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At the same time, the Financial Times reported that 34 travel competitors, including Tripadvisor, Expedia, eDreams Odigeo, Wimdu, HomeToGo, and several trade associations sent a letter Monday to European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager alleging that Google is stifling competition in vacation rentals by preferentially displaying its so-called “one-box” of featured search results (shown below), which take users to Google’s travel pages, within Google’s general search results pages.

Google’s featured vacation rental results.

But in response to travel industry criticisms — which actually have been several years in the making — Google is placing what it calls “a carousel of links” that go directly to competitors’ websites atop its own featured business results. Google is testing these new direct links in Europe not only in travel, including for flights, hotels, vacation rentals, and tour packages, but also in other categories such as for jobs and local results.

These tests are under way in countries including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK, and aren’t yet visible to everyone. BookatableDE, which is a Tripadvisor restaurant reservation brand, tweeted a screenshot of direct links to and ViaMichelin restaurant results perched higher than a Google map within Google’s featured restaurant results on mobile devices. The Bookatable and ViaMichelin results show the new way of displaying competitors’ results that Google is trying out.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “People trust Google to give them relevant and trusted information from a diverse range of sources. That’s why our search results are designed to provide the most relevant information for your query, and the better the results we can provide, the more qualified leads we’re able to send to our partners. We’re currently testing a new format for specialist searches in Europe including jobs, local and travel where people might see a carousel of links to direct sites across the top of the search results. This is designed to demonstrate the range of results available.”

Google’s thinking seemingly is that the addition of rivals’ free and direct links for vacation rentals, hotels, flights, and holiday packages will show that there are alternatives to Google’s featured results. Competitors have been advocating for changes of this sort for years so it’s clear that Google, which has now been fined by the European Commission several times out of competition concerns, is feeling the heat.

“The competition concerns arise from the fact that Google features its new product in a visually-rich OneBox at the top of its general search results pages — a ranking and display that Google reserves only for its own specialised search service,” the letter to the European regulator, which cites a Skift article about Google’s vacation rental rollout, stated.

The letter — and more importantly the series of fines that the European Commission leveled against Google for its business practices — is the sort of pressure that Google is finally responding to.

Google isn’t saying whether it is committed to making these and other changes on an ongoing basis, but it does indeed plan to introduce these tests across the European Economic Area. There is no indication yet that Google plans to introduce similar changes in the United States, where a Department of Justice probe of its business practices is reportedly under way.

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Update: This story was updated to include a screenshot of Google’s beta test for vacation rentals, and also to reflect the fact that Google is believed to have started testing travel competitors’ direct links in the fourth quarter.

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Tags: competition, eu, europe, european commission, expedia, flights, google, hotels, regulators, restaurants, tour operators, tripadvisor, vacation rentals

Photo credit: Pictured is an Airbnb Luxe property in Provence, France. Under pressure from regulators, Google is testing changes to the way it displays travel, jobs, and local results in Europe. Airbnb

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