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Why Google 'vertical' search shouldn't face antitrust action

commentary One of the areas where Google has attracted antitrust attention is "vertical" search. There are good reasons why it shouldn't be hindered from offering this.

It's likely we'll finally see the U.S. Federal Trade Commission make a decision on whether to take antitrust action against Google in the coming days. Among the charges is the idea that Google somehow is being unfair to competitors with "vertical" search. That has been, and remains largely to me, a laughable argument.

If the FTC did take action on this issue, it would be punishing Google for doing exactly what a good search engine should do.

Make no mistake. There are issues where Google deserves some antitrust attention. But vertical search isn't one of them. Taking action over that would be like punishing CBS for not airing ABC television programs or being upset The New York Times runs its own sports section rather than that of the Los Angeles Times.

Before I go further, a little background about myself. Here at CNET, I write the Common Sense Tech column, where I explore technology from a practical viewpoint. But my "day job," so to speak, is as editor in chief Search Engine Land, which covers the search engine industry in depth. I've been writing about search for nearly 17 years now, before Google itself even started.

My views on Google and accusations against it over vertical search come from the experience of having watched the entire search engine space try to better serve searchers over the years. Vertical search has always been an important and useful thing that the major search engines have offered.

What is "vertical" search?
To better understand, let's revisit what vertical search is. The term comes from the idea that search engines like Google or Bing allow you to search "horizontally" across a wide range of interests: news, sports, entertainment. Whatever you want, you can put it into a search box and find answers. Envision the spectrum of search topics like this:

Horizontal Search

Sometimes, you'll get better answers from a search engine if you use one that focuses on a particular slice of the interest spectrum. If you are after news headlines, using a news search engine makes the most sense. Rather than search "horizontally" across all topics, you'll search "vertically" down only through news content:

Vertical Search

Similarly, if you're after shopping results, using a shopping search engine makes sense. If you're looking for images, an image search engine may be more useful. If you want local listings, then a local search engine can be helpful.

Vertical search from Google and others
There are many vertical search engines out there, not trying to answer all questions for all people but instead staying focused on particular topics. To name just a few:

There are also vertical search engines offered by Google, such as:

You can see the conflict shaping up. Some of those running vertical search engines feel like Google having its own vertical search engines is unfair, so unfair that antitrust laws should be used to force a change. Indeed, several of them have banded together as part of the FairSearch lobbying group -- which is also backed by Microsoft -- to seek government intervention.

The "favoritism" argument
As an example of abuse, these companies point to Google "favoritism" like this, where in a search for "lego death star," Google lists Google Shopping results at the top of the page:

Lego Death Star results on Google

That's an example of Google pointing to itself over competing vertical search engines, these companies argue, and needs to stop.

It makes for a powerful-sounding argument until you start looking at it from a searcher's point of view. Let's say you're interesting in buying a Lego Death Star model. If you're like most searchers at Google (and Bing), you will completely ignore options to deliberately choose one of their vertical search engines. Instead, you'll search for what you want and expect the search engine to just magically do the right thing.

And the search engines do this, through a method called "blended search." Google's own name for this is called "Universal Search," but it's an industry-standard practice which means that vertical and horizontal results get mixed together, if it makes sense. For example, if someone searches for "pictures of flowers" but didn't use your image search engine, you don't play dumb and not show them pictures. You act smart and blend in your image results.

If it's "favoritism" at Google, why isn't it at Bing?
So Google showing its own shopping results? That's not being unfair. That's being smart, doing exactly what people want a search engine to do for them. Indeed, it's exactly what Google-competitor Bing does:

Lego Death Star results on Bing

Bing is doing exactly the same thing as Google. Exactly. But Microsoft-backed FairSearch never suggests that Microsoft-owned Bing is doing anything wrong. 

Well, there's an argument that because Google has so much search market share, it's under a special obligation to follow different standards to ensure fair competition. However, that argument falls apart when you think about what exactly is being "favored" by either Google or Bing showing shopping results.

Google and Bing favor publishers, not themselves
When you go into these results, you'll either be sent directly out to a merchant or be given a list of merchants selling products, so that you can choose. They're search results, just like when you do a regular search, you get search results. Neither Google nor Bing are favoring themselves -- they're "favoring" the merchants listed.

Let's say the Google critics on vertical search forced a change, where Google couldn't show its own shopping results or had to show those from others. You might do that "lego death star" search on Google, then potentially get pages from Nextag and other shopping search engines coming up, where if you click on them, you could then repeat your search to get actual merchants.

Anyone think adding an extra step like that is a good idea? And if Google can't offer shopping search, what else does it get prevented from offering? Will news search be outlawed? Image search has to go? Can it not offer maps?

Google didn't start the vertical search fire
The core mission of a search engine is to help people find things. Vertical search is an essential part of any major search engine's ability to help people locate information. That's exactly why AltaVista offered vertical search in 1998:

See the list under the search box, the "Specialty Searches" that are shown like maps, travel, and photo finder? Google was a tiny baby at this time; AltaVista one of the giants, and vertical search was normal to offer even back then.

A post I did last year at Search Engine Land, Does The FairSearch White Paper On Google Being Anticompetitive Hold Up?, details this history in more depth -- how other players like Lycos and Yahoo did the same with vertical search integration. 

Critics would have you believe that vertical search and blending is some strange new Google plan to crush competition. The reality is that it is how search engines operated before Google grew into being a search giant.

If Google's prevented from offering vertical search, because it potentially takes away listings that some other vertical search engine somehow "deserves," then here's a preview of how search results may ultimately look:

That example comes from a story I wrote in 2010, The Incredible Stupidity Of Investigating Google For Acting Like A Search Engine. I was trying to illustrate how dumb this all becomes, where ultimately Google might only be allowed to list links to other search engines, to ensure it's not being unfair to them.

A chilling example of why vertical search is important
We want our "horizontal" search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo to also offer vertical search results, otherwise all we're doing is searching in order to go somewhere else to search. Worse, we don't want to go back to the days like this:

World Trade Center search on Google, on Sept. 11, 2001

That's what a search on Google looked like on September 11, 2001, for "World Trade Center." That second listing still saddens me: "View from WTCA Headquarters."

There was no news about the Twin Towers collapsing, in these results. That's because Google didn't have Google News then, so it had no vertical search results that it could blend into the overall set. Vertical search is search, and it's what you expect a search engine to offer, exactly for reasons like these.

Vertical search debate has grown more complicated
As I said, there are anticompetitive issues around Google that are worth investigating. But the basic concept of vertical search, especially in the way I've seen competitors, lobbyists and, sadly, some government officials debate it, isn't a problem.

The real problem is when a search engine like Google ultimately fails to point outward to a destination site, rather than to a competing search engine. What's fair when Google becomes a content destination?

When Google points people to Google News or Google Shopping, those people are largely going to leave Google. But when Google acquires content companies like Zagat or Frommer's, to beef up its local and travel offerings, does that mean other local guides or travel guides (as opposed to search engines) are somehow at a disadvantage? Potentially, though not necessarily illegally. 

That's not a question that's really been debated. Google only recently started acquiring guides like these, ironically in response to complaints by competitors like Yelp that it was unfairly summarizing content from those services. Google's solution to defend itself against those charges have put it down a new -- and, to me, more worrisome -- path, but a path that the regulators haven't even really investigated.

Finally, Google's ultimate trump card to defend against these allegations seems to be to turn some vertical search results into ads. For example, Google Shopping used to list merchants from around the Web for free. Last month, Google Shopping was turned into an entirely play-to-be-listed service. 

Google Shopping is effectively all ads (which is the norm, sadly, for shopping search engines). But by being all ads, Google is better able to argue it's not even putting a "vertical" search box ahead of others. It's just showing a special ad box, something I think will be harder for competitors to argue is unfair.

It'll be interesting to see how the FTC and the European Union ultimately rule. Personally, I'm expecting they'll both make some suggestion that Google better label its vertical search boxes (which would be ironic given how poorly the FTC enforces its existing requirements for paid listing labels).

What I don't expect is that either will say Google can't have vertical search engines or must somehow give "equal" treatment to listings from other vertical search engines. As I said in my opening, it would be the same thing as somehow requiring a "horizontal" newspaper to carry a sports or entertainment section from another competitor, or a major television network to carry some cooking show from a small cable channel under the guise of fairness.