The probe follows complaints from a number of price comparison sites including Foundem (which searches for flights, hotels and car hire, as well as other consumer products) over supposed manipulation of search results.
The EC says it is investigating whether Google deliberately lowered the ranking of competing vertical search engines within natural search results.
There will be investigations into sponsored links and its external advertising platforms.
Google is now facing scrutiny by two regulatory authorities after the US Department of Justice launched an inquiry into the proposed $700 million acquisition of air data technology provider ITA Software.
The EC this morning set out its terms of reference for the probe:
- …whether Google has abused a dominant market position in online search by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results of competing services and by according preferential placement to the results of its own vertical search services in order to shut out competing services.
- …whether Google lowered the “Quality Score” for sponsored links of competing vertical search services.
- …whether Google imposes exclusivity obligations on advertising partners, preventing them from placing certain types of competing ads on their web sites, as well as on computer and software vendors, with the aim of shutting out competing search tools.
- …whether Google restricts the portability of online advertising campaign data to competing online advertising platforms.
The trio filed antitrust complaints over the issue with the European Commission against Google in February 2010.
Google, inevitably, denies the accusations but says it will work the EC during the course of the investigation.
Nevertheless, in many respects this latest investigation will be infinitely trickier for regulators than the Google-ITA acquisition, given that to determine such manipulation of organic search results it may have to get its hands on the secret sauce of the algorithm, something Google has guarded fiercely and will no doubt be reluctant to reveal to outside parties.