Google may drop screen scraping of TripAdvisor and Yelp content to get government off its back
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may end its antitrust investigation of Google’s search business by letting the company make voluntary changes, “such as limiting use of restaurant and travel reviews from other websites,” according to sources who spoke with Politico and Bloomberg News.
The official decision is expected to be made public as soon as this week, according to the New York Times Bits blog.
Bye-bye, screen scraping
Two sources told Politico that the company had agreed to abstain from screen scraping synopses of reviews from other sites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, and stop incorporating them in its search results. (The company has already made some concessions. Last year, it scaled back using “snippets” of text from other sites in its results related to local businesses.)
Google would also commit to simplify the process for advertisers to port their rates and bidding data to rival advertising networks, such as Microsoft’s Bing. That means the company will make it easier for users of Google AdWords “to compare data from ad campaigns with their performance on other Internet search engines,” says Bloomberg.
The company will apparently also stop signing exclusive agreements with sites to use and promote Google’s search service.
A potential big win for Google
The probe is going Google’s way, if he reports of voluntary concessions are true. The company will have dodged a consent decree—a judge-approved deal that would have empowered the FTC to supervise specific Google search practices for a set period.
On the other hand, the deal could translate into a major concession by Google to content companies, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. For years, Google has insisted that it has the right to copy and paste summaries from other sites, such as ratings and review excerpts.
Critics say the company uses these summaries in its search results to tip the scales in favor of its own products, an issue that’s become of more concern with Google having purchased and begun displaying travel content from ITA Software, Frommers, Zagat and other companies.
Apparently federal investigators are afraid they can’t prove that consumers are harmed by how the company ranks its search engine result pages (SERPs), according to an earlier report by Bloomberg. The company seems to be effective in its argument that the cost for consumers to switch to rival sources of information, such as Expedia or TripAdvisor is nothing.
There’s also apparently a lack of damning e-mails or other evidence that Google executives are deliberately trying to use its leverage to harm competitors. This may be the more crucial point. In the words of The New York Times, “the legal issue is the tactics the dominant company employs to expand its empire.”
As Tnooz has reported, Google’s search practices are also being probed by European authorities, who obviously aren’t bound by any US government decision. Google accounts for 79% of searches in Europe, compared with 63% in the US. The greater volume combined with tighter regulation may make it easier for Europeans to make a case that Google has monopolistic power.
Read the full Politico report here.
NB: Image courtesy of Branding.