Should Google worry us as Telstra does?

We've been so worried about Telstra's market domination in Australia recently, with internet service providers concerned that the behemoth's deal with the National Broadband Network Company might provide it with secret advantages. But what about the other dominant internet force, Google?

We've been so worried about Telstra's market domination in Australia recently, with internet service providers concerned that the behemoth's deal with the National Broadband Network Company might provide it with secret advantages. But what about the other dominant internet force, Google?

Telstra dominates the telecommunications sector by having a national network that none of the other telcos can afford to match. It's been argued that there's only enough money and customers for one network in Australia, and Telstra is it.

Google is pretty much it in the search world, but for different reasons. It's got a ridiculously high market share, nabbing almost 90 per cent of the Australian market, according to Hitwise.

This was all well and good when Google was just a search company. But now that it has other products, possible conflicts of interest are starting to appear. It's got its Maps, its videos, its price comparison tool. Google is obviously looking towards the travel sector with its ITA buy, and then consider the stake in physical products after its Motorola Mobility buy.

Like Telstra, Google is the gateway to the internet for many. If you want to find something on the net, you google it. If you took away Google, most people would be devastated.

Yesterday, I spoke to Shivaun Raff of Foundem, one of the companies that sparked a formal investigation by the European Commission into whether Google has been overstepping the mark and being uncompetitive with its search operations. Similar concerns have also been raised in the US.

Foundem is a vertical search engine. That means that it scoops information from particular industries and allows you to search for it; for example, flight prices or product prices. It probably should be noted, however, that Foundem has reportedly received support from a company called IComp, which the Financial Times said has links to Microsoft. Foundem has refuted any suggestion that it's being used as a puppet by the Redmond-based company, which has its own search engine, Bing.

In a submission to the Federal Communications Commission (PDF), which was asking whether it should adopt rules to foster an open internet, Foundem said that search neutrality was as important as the concept of net neutrality.

Foundem talked about Google's introduction of universal search in 2007.

Google describes its universal search proposition as a vision that allows users to "ultimately search across all its content sources, compare and rank all the information in real time, and deliver a single, integrated set of search results that offers users precisely what they are looking for. Beginning today, the company will incorporate information from a variety of previously separate sources — including videos, images, news, maps, books and websites — into a single set of results. At first, universal search results may be subtle. Over time users will recognise additional types of content integrated into their search results as the company advances toward delivering a truly comprehensive search experience".

Sounds reasonable, but Foundem was concerned that it also allowed Google to place its products in the results, adding that once the Google product comparison, news and video results were shown, there was often little real estate on the screen for other results, saying that where exactly these Google products appeared were at Google's discretion. It has also said that Google gives preferential treatment to its own products to others, using different algorithms.

Google has previously said that low rankings are a result of unoriginal content, saying that algorithms disadvantage sites that have duplicate content. It's also said that the complaining sites weren't great quality.

"Most of these [complaining] sites are basically poor quality," Google's senior communications and public affairs officer in Brussels reportedly said last December. Although Google admitted in March this year that it used whitelists to exclude them from the impact of particular ranking signals, which contradicted prior reported statements that it didn't.

According to Foundem, the alleged preferential treatment has caused vertical search companies to tank, while Google comparison products climb in stature.

Google addressed the whole issue formally in a blog last year, saying that it wasn't surprising that the company was receiving attention on competition.

"We are also the first to admit that our search is not perfect, but it's a very hard computer science problem to crack. Imagine having to rank the 272 million possible results for a popular query like the iPod on a 14 by 12 computer screen in just a few milliseconds."

Google goes on to say that Google wants to give its users useful results, and pointed out that Expedia, also a vertical search site, ranked high in results.

"Though each case raises slightly different issues, the question they ultimately pose is whether Google is doing anything to choke off competition or hurt our users and partners. This is not the case. We always try to listen carefully if someone has a real concern and we work hard to put our users' interests first and to compete fair and square in the market."

It's difficult to know who to believe, but for me it doesn't really matter at this point who's right and who's wrong. Google's power is undeniable. Many people type addresses directly into the browser bar or use bookmarks, but if a user isn't familiar with something they'll look to Google. To me, this means anyone who is looking for all options on a product or travel — or even an opinion. Google will say that it's constrained by providing the right results for users, but I say that a little bit of manipulation probably wouldn't be noticed.

I personally think that because of the power this has, it should be structurally separated from other businesses. Like the situation with Telstra, good intentions aren't always what are implemented. Or if they are now, perhaps they won't be in the future.

What do you think? Does Google have too much power over how the internet is used? Or am I being paranoid?


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