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Google under fire for travel search placement

Competitors say Google's recently introduced practice of placing travel search results on top of everything else is a problem.

Searching for flights on Google.
Searching for flights on Google.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Google is taking heat from travel companies that say the search engine is giving preferential treatment to its own travel search tools over those of competitors.

The Wall Street Journal today points to a practice begun by the search giant earlier this month, which provides results for travel-related searches--such as domestic flights--from right within Google, as opposed to pointing searchers towards places like Priceline, Expedia, and Orbitz.

The move poses a serious threat, the Journal says, for these competing travel sites, which can depend on Google for 10 percent to 20 percent of their incoming traffic. With the newer technique of putting links to airline sites right up top, there's a chance visitors won't scroll down to try their search from one of these other sites, the Journal argues.

Google made serious moves to get into the travel business in the middle of last year, announcing plans to buy travel software company ITA as part of a $700 million deal. ITA's core business is curating and indexing prices, flight schedules, and open seats, and offering the data to partners. When Google first announced plans to buy the company, it said it intended to use ITA's technology to let users buy tickets directly from its search pages.

The 500-person company has relationships with airlines and travel agencies and can be found powering sites like Kayak, Hotwire, and Orbitz--many of which opposed the deal.

In April, Google and the Justice Department announced that a deal had been struck, granting Google the right to acquire ITA. But that deal came with strings attached, including that Google continue to license ITA's technology to competitors for five years, and pass along any complaints from competitors about their listings not receiving fair placement on Google's results pages.

In October, a federal judge approved the consent decree between Google and the Justice Department.

The Journal points to a statement made by Google vice president, and ITA founder, Jeremy Wertheimer last month, in which he said that airlines refused to give the company data about flights if that information was linked up to travel agencies as opposed to the airliners' own sales sites. Google declined further elaboration on that point, the Journal said.

Worth pointing out is that Microsoft has a similar practice of putting travel results on the top of its Bing search pages, as it's done since March of this year. However that technology is a partnership with Kayak, as opposed to Microsoft's own travel tools. The Journal notes that Bing brings in "less than a quarter of Google's audience," giving the practice less of an impact.