Three Thoughts On EU's $2.7 Billion Antitrust Google Fine

By now, of course, you've probably heard that the EU Commission has fined Google €2.4 billion for antitrust violations, specifically regarding shopping search (there are at least two other investigations going on around antitrust questions involving Android and Adsense). The specific issue leading to this fine is that Google, for years, has been pushing its own comparison shopping results in response to searches on products, and other comparison search vendors feel this is unfair, as users are more likely to just jump to Google's shopping options in the boxes up top -- usually called the "onebox" (for what it's worth, I almost never click on those boxes, in fact, I almost never use Google for product search, preferring other, better, dedicated sites -- but that's a single anecdotal point, while the EU is citing some data it claims supports its position). Anyway, rather than digging all that deep, let's go with three thoughts I had in reading through the EU's announcement (linked above), Google's response and some of the other coverage.

I still don't understand why Google didn't handle this differently starting years ago. Three years ago, we wrote about this in connection to the antitrust fight over "place reviews" where Yelp & TripAdvisor made the fairly compelling (and data-backed) argument that Google users would prefer if the "onebox" were populated using Google's search algorithm, rather than only showing Google's review pages via Google Local/Zagat/whatever it's called. The same thing could apply somewhat to shopping search as well, and pull from other shopping search engines -- and, voila, no more antitrust issue. In that setup, competition in the market rules -- and if Google can produce the best results, it wins. If others can do better, then they win. Seems like a fairly straightforward solution as it would have eased the pressure on Google, and wiped out this kind of fine. Indeed, such a response would even feel more "Googley" in the early-2000's definition of "Googley" where the company seemed much more willing to drive people elsewhere on the web, rather than keep people in.

Even given that first point, I'm still... nervous about having European bureaucrats (or, really, any bureaucrats) telling any company how they can design their webpages. As Wired's Klint Finley points out, once bureaucrats -- who have no idea the realities of designing search results pages, let alone designing any webpages -- start telling websites how they can and cannot design their sites, trouble follows. I know that some are saying (and I've talked about this in the past) that this is just the EU slapping down big American companies for being "big" and "American" but I really think this is a case of EU regulators getting so deep in the weeds and then deciding that Google is too big and that they (the bureaucrats) don't like how its shopping search results work. That kind of meddling in webpages should worry everyone. Yes, you can say that it will only be used against giant companies... but once you open the door to bureaucrats telling you how your webpages can work, they might not stop at just the big ones. Danny Sullivan summed this up nicely:

Given all that: will this actually change anything substantial? Even if Google accepts this and doesn't appeal (which it probably will...) it can easily afford the fine. But, more importantly, will this actually help other comparison shopping engines? That's much less clear. That same article (by Rob Pegoraro) has a number of interesting quotes, including a few from Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research noting that in the market for product searches (as in my anecdotal experience), most don't start at Google:

“Around half of searches for products now start on specific e-commerce sites or apps, especially Amazon in the countries where it operates,” emailed Jackdaw Research principal Jan Dawson.

Dawson also noted: "Although those comparison shopping sites still exist, they're far less relevant today, and even a change to Google’s search engine isn't going to turn that around."

So... if this isn't going to hurt Google and isn't going to help other companies in the market, then... what's the point exactly? Yes, Google could have done things differently, but this doesn't help really.

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