This week in Google: Senators, mobile payments, and broken promises

The week ending September 23rd, 2011 saw Google face a board of Senators, upset an ex-Senator, launch Google Wallet, and open the doors to Google+ wide.
Written by Matt Weinberger, Contributor

This was a big week for Google. Obviously, the headlining event was obviously Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt taking the stand in front of the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust.

But the Google Wallet mobile payment solution also saw its public rollout, even as the Google+ social network opened its doors to all comers. Here's an overview of how the last several days went for the search giant, with some additional insight - and a quick look at former US Senator Rick Santorum's unique Google problem.

Schmidt's testimony and the response

The focus of Schmidt's testimony in front of the gathered Senators was the issue of whether or not Google "cooked" search results to favor its own products and services, with the result of stifling competition - but I had to take issue with his characterization of Google Android as a totally open platform for mobile devices.

And while no official antitrust charges have been pressed against Google at this time, competitors like Expedia and Yelp were more than ready to accuse the search company of breaking all the rules during their time to address the Senate subcommittee, as CNET reports.

Yelp Chief Executive and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman continued to publicly criticize Google for placing its own pages above others. And Jeff Katz, CEO of competing search engine Nextag, laid it out plainly when he told the panel "Google doesn't play fair. Google rigs results."

Along a similar vein, Thomas O. Barnett, a lawyer for travel search site Expedia, alleged that Google broke a promise it made when antitrust regulators approved the acquisition of ITA. Google Flights, which just launched, includes no links to outside travel agencies, like, say, Expedia.

Google maintains its defense that users aren't tied to the platform and can switch at any time. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, competitors are pushing for action in this matter, even if it's only a clearer delineation of Google's allegedly promoted in-house services and naturally-generated search results.

Santorum's Google problem

Former United States Senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has a Google problem of a different kind: a quick Google search will demonstrate "Santorum" has become a synonym for a sexual term too graphic to describe here (Look it up at your own risk).

Why? Back in 2003, Santorum publicly compared homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, leading a grassroots campaign largely helmed by advice columnist Dan Savage to redefine the term in retribution - and the page originating this new, filthy definition completely eclipses his campaign website.

Understandably, if a little naively, Santorum contacted Google to ask them to take down the offending search results. But as CNN confirms, Google turned him down, as per this official statement:

"Google's search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Web. Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly. Once the webmaster takes the page down from the Web, it will be removed from Google's search results through our usual crawling process. We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content and violations of our webmaster guidelines."

In other words, if Santorum wants this definition scrubbed from the web, he'll have to convince webmasters to do it themselves, one by one. That may be an uphill battle, given the context.

Google+ opens its doors

Google+ entered general availability this week, letting users join the social network without an invitation for the first time since launch. And to mark the occasion, the Google Hangouts videoconferencing tool got a handful of improvements.

But the really interesting part is that it seems to be working. Many, myself included, were almost ready to pass judgment on Google+ as an interesting but ultimately failed experiment. After all, Facebook integrated several of its best features, and traffic to Google+ sharply fell off after the initial rush of popularity.

But in the WSJ's words, the Google+ traffic floodgates have opened, with 3.58 million Web visits on Tuesday, the first day of general availability, alone. For comparison, when it was invitation-only, it peaked at somewhere around 321,000 daily visits. Of course, Facebook still gets 72 times that new record of Google+ traffic daily, but it's a start.

And speaking of Facebook, I have a hunch that part of the reason for that impressive statistic is the coincident release of the newest Facebook design. At the same time this latest wave of Facebook outrage started, a competitor, in this case Google+, was flashing the "Vacancy" sign. Let's see if that edge lasts through the launch of Facebook OpenGraph and Timeline, though.

Google Wallet

There's not too much else to say about the launch of Google Wallet. The NFC-based mobile payment solution is currently only available for the relatively small test base of Spring Nexus S 4G users, and so far, no deal-breaking issues or problems have come up (though ZDNet did put together some helpful rules of the road). That said, the rollout was hampered by the fact that many Nexus S owners won't be getting the Google Wallet app until today, according to Consumer Reports.

Keep watching for more Google Wallet updates as the system begins to face real-world usage and challenges.

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