Google rivals get help with antitrust campaign -- from Google

As European regulators ponder Google's fate in a probe into the search giant's business practices, a Yelp-led group of competitors takes to the company's Chrome store to make a point.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read

The Yelp-led consortium argues that Google gives preferential treatment to Google in search results. Focus on the User/Screenshot by CNET

A consortium of Google's rivals -- including review sites Yelp and TripAdvisor -- is using the company's own platform to help further its cause against the search giant.

Focus on the User, a group united against Google's alleged anti-competitive practices, last week unveiled a software tool that works with Google's Chrome browser. The software uses Google's own algorithms to make sure more third-party sites are included in top search results when you're using Chrome -- Focus on the User claims that Google doesn't promote sites fairly in its search results.

That's not the only way the group is using Google's services: as of earlier this week, the software is available as an app that can be downloaded from Google's Chrome store. In order for the software to be distributed on the store, Google had to approve it.

Google didn't respond to a request for comment.

Focus on the User -- which also includes Switzerland-based travel site HolidayCheck and digital rights groups like Fight for the Future -- was formed last week in response to antitrust issues in the European Union concerning how Google displays search results. A spokesman for the consortium told CNET two new French reviews sites, Bebe et Tournevis and Allogarage.fr, joined the group on Thursday.

Their main complaint is that the company allegedly gives priority to search results based on reviews generated by its Google+ social network -- even when Google's own search algorithms would deem outside links more valuable. The Focus on the User tool forces Google's search engine to rank results generated by the "top local review sites" -- which includes sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor -- by running all of the results through Google's general search algorithm. This avoids what they claim is a bias toward Google+ offerings.

"Given we know it's both possible to power local answers with the organic algorithm and consumers prefer it, why is Google requiring users to install special software to get the answers they want?" a spokesman for Focus on the User told CNET.

The group's Chrome plug-in is now available for download at Google's Chrome Web store. Screenshot by CNET

In February, Google reached a tentative settlement with European regulators after a 4-year-old investigation into whether the search giant favored its own products and services over those of competitors in search results. As part of the proposed settlement, Google agreed to display search results for three of its rivals in a "comparable" way whenever it promoted its own services. Google's services include Google+ and YouTube. However, the search giant didn't have to pay a fine of up to $6 billion, or 10 percent of the company's global sales.

But Google's settlement proposals -- they've made three attempts so far -- have come under fire. Opponents include European politicians, competitors like Microsoft, and French and German publishers who say the response has been too lax. In September, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told Google that if the commission wasn't satisfied with its next settlement proposal, the company could face formal charges -- which includes the possibility of the $6 billion fine.

The investigation in Europe underscores a concern over Google's expansive reach, and its ability to use its position as the world's largest search engine to stifle competition. But its competitors use of Google services -- the group's informational videos are hosted by Google-owned YouTube as well -- highlights a philosophy that has guided Google since its founding: platforms should be open. (Google's Android, the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, is a famously open-source project, though it too may soon be the target of competition regulators in Europe.)

Focus on the User -- the name comes from one of Google's early mantras -- called Google's decision to distribute the software through the Chrome store "ironic." The group cites Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, telling Congress in 2011 that the company tends to use its own data sources to drive search results "because [Google] can't engineer it any other way." But that isn't the case, Focus on the User claims.

"The truth is Google can organically power its local answers using data sources from across the Web," Focus on the User said. While the groups' Chrome plug-in isn't perfect, it does prove that the content in Google's display of search results for local businesses can be culled and ranked from sources other than Google+, the spokesman said.

Users who searched Google with the plug-in installed were more likely to click on other links beyond the ones for Google-owned services, the group notes.

Before the plug-in went live on Monday, the software was still available for the public to download, just not as easily. It was available on the consortium's GitHub site, a service where people can download open-source programming projects.

Meanwhile, the European review of Google's practices continues. The final decision will fall to former Danish economy minister Margrethe Vestager, who takes over from Almunia as the EU's competition chief in November. It's unclear what her stance on Google is, but she has talked about the commission's priorities.

"We have to make sure that there is a high degree of security in relation to personal data," Vestager told The Wall Street Journal. "That there is a high degree of confidence from the people that the competition rules and regulations on market fairness are actually being enforced."