TripAdvisor says Google threatened search lock-out
Tom Barnett, counsel to Expedia Inc. and speaking for its TripAdvisor unit, said CEO Stephen Kaufer, “went to Google last year”and demanded that TripAdvisor reviews be removed from Google Places “and Google said no.”
Google used coersive tactics instead, Barnett claims.
“The only way we will take that down is if you will never appear anywhere in our dominant search engine results,” Barnett says was Google’s message to Kaufer.
Barnett said he was “somewhat offended” by earlier testimony from Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who said Yelp’s reviews were removed from Google Places when Yelp wrote a letter to Google demanding that its reviews be taken off Google Places.
“This is not what happened,” Barnett said.
Barnett said Google only “started to back down” when antitrust probes by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorney generals started to heat up.
Today, Google doesn’t use snippets of TripAdvisor reviews in Google Places, but merely has a link to TripAdvisor.com with the number of reviews of a particular hotel in parenthesis.
The testimony took place Sept. 21 as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee took up the question, “The Power of Google: Servicing Consumers or Threatening Competition?”
Yelp’s tale of dealing with Google and its Google Places initiative was similar in some ways to Barnett’s recollections about TripAdvisor.
“Google first began taking our content without permission a year ago, despite public and private protests,” Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp’s CEO, testified to the subcommittee. “Google gave the ultimatum that only a monopoly can give: In order to appear in Web search, you must allow us to use your content to compete against you.”
Google is no longer just a search engine, Stoppelman maintained, pointing to Google’s expansion into various vertical markets.
“Let’s be clear, Google is no longer in the business of sending people to the best sources of information on the Web,” Stoppelman said. “It now hopes to be a destination site itself for one vertical market after another including news, shopping, travel and content for free …”
Today, Google doesn’t place links to Yelp’s restaurant reviews in Google Places. Today, a search for Legal Seafoods restaurant in Boston found a Yelp review as the third organic result, right beneath a Google Places link to Google reviews.
Schmidt appeared separately, prior to a second panel featuring Barnett, Stoppelman, Jeff Katz of comparison shopping site Nextag, and Susan Creighton of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, who represented Google’s interests in the latter group.
Various senators on the antitrust subcommittee questioned Schmidt and expressed concern about what Schmidt referred to as Google’s own Simple Answers being featured more prominantly in Google search results than organic search results.[Note in the image below, for instance, Google’s Simple Answer, “Shopping results for digital cameras,” features images and is displayed prominently, and leads to a Google product search page. A Best Buy search result, though, is the first organic result. ]
Earlier, when Schmidt was appearing by himself, Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, said he read Stoppelman’s prepared testimony the previous night and found it “compelling.”
“It sounds to me like Google first tried to license Yelp’s content and did, and then when Yelp terminated that contract, Google tried to buy Yelp, and when Yelp refused, Google started taking Yelp’s reviews and showed them on Google’s page …”
Schmidt saw it differently, saying:
So in the particular case of Yelp, I felt Yelp would be very happy with us pointing to their site and then using a little bit of their reviews because we’ve got even those in the index and then sending traffic to them. They were not happy with that. They sent us a letter to that effect and we took them out of the Place pages.
Schmidt also defended Google’s use of Simple Answers, arguing that Google is doing consumers a service by quickly offering them results that they want to see.
Simple Answers are an improvement over the previous standard 10 links and Google’s competitors are handling things in a similar way, Schmidt said.
In other news from the Senate hearing, Barnett of Expedia argued that Google’s new Flight Search tool curtails consumer choice.
Barnett, an active participant in FairSearch.org and a former head of the US Justice Department’s antitrust division, cited the Justice Department consent decree on Google’s use of its ITA Software technology and Google’s pledges that the acquisition of ITA would benefit consumers and the travel ecosphere.
“Notwithstanding the judicial decree and Google’s promise, the service [Flight Search] excludes any link to online travel agencies, which are key options for comparison shopping,” Barnett noted in his prepared testimony.
He added: “Further, the Google service utilizes a new version of ITA software that, now that Google owns ITA, is available only to Google, also continuing to undermine choices for consumers.”
Barnett cited the consent decree as an issue, but the consent decree appears to give Google and ITA a relative green light in terms of their development of Flight Search.
The consent decree states:
Nothing in this Final Judgment shall require Defendants [Google and ITA] to provide to any third party any product, service, or technology (or feature thereof) that Defendants develop exclusively for use in the Google Services, nor shall any such product, service, or technology, or the relative functionality of one or more Google Services (including, but not limited to, the Google Consumer Flight Search Service) when compared to third-party websites using QPX, be considered in determining Defendants’ compliance with any provision of this Final Judgment.
Dennis Schaal was North American editor for Tnooz.