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1125 days ago
 

TripAdvisor says Google threatened search lock-out

Officials from TripAdvisor and Yelp told a US Senate antitrust panel yesterday that Google threatened to shut them out of search altogether if they didn’t provide their content to Google Places.

 

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

About the Writer :: Dennis Schaal

Dennis Schaal was North American editor for Tnooz.

 

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  1. Margo

    The old saying – you can fool some of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time comes to mind here, if it all gets to controlled – people will turn their backs on it – I am sure the big guns realise this and will not push too far.

     
  2. Daniele Beccari

    All of this fuss on Google with only 66% share, what will we be saying about Facebook in a couple of years…

     
  3. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Johannes

    This is not about degree – it is about a simple question of whether or not – as you so eloquently put – Google can continue to use/abuse its power for its own ends.

    The fact that we see that abuse can occur and there is more than anecdotal evidence to indicate that Google is benefiting itself vs others creates the situation. Since the market cannot decide on this particular case – the regulators have no choice but to ensure that freedom from being crushed exists.

    While I hold little sympathy for the big boys such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, Google must be held to a consistent standard to prevent funneling of traffic to its own businesses. If one follows the case of Microsoft and the WIndows+IE DoJ suit – one can see that at the end of the day the controls on Microsoft opened up the market for the browser and enabled others to gain share fairly.

    The ” no harm no foul ” argument that the consumer is not harmed if the software is free was dismissed in the Windows suit.

    I dont want to see the big bad central government stepping into this battle. However I see no alternative but for the DoJ to intervene.

    Google has proved itself incapable of moderating its power as a gatekeeper.

    Cheers

    Timothy

     
  4. Johannes Reck

    This is a really twisted story and I love it, because it pushes us to the boundary of our faith in the internet as a free market place. Unfortunately, I think none of the parties in this are actually fully wrong or right.

    To begin with, TripAdvisor & Yelp could have never become what they are today without Google, a search engine that values original content and page authority. In a certain sense most online travel businesses (including my own company GetYourGuide) were largely raised on the wonderful thing called organic Google traffic. And since we all can’t get enough of that juice, we also love to buy into the other great thing that Google gives us: Highly converting paid traffic!

    Google is listed on the NYC stock exchange and thus obliged to maximize ROI for their shareholders. Given that they pretty much dominate (for better or worse) the search engine landscape and the market is slowly saturating, good strategy requires them to vertically push into new markets. The problem is that they are in an innovators dilemma, where they cannot truly tackle any of their verticals, without harming any of their paying clients, who have been very happy with Google’s upstream traffic for all these years.

    Now Google is walking a thin red line, which is pointedly underlined by the Yelp & TripAdvisor case, where formerly complementing companies feel suddenly unfairly pushed to the sidelines, when Google tries to get into their – admittedly lucrative – game.

    The core of the issue in my eyes is how Google handels its internet user monopoly, which it undoubtedly holds. No one can blame Google for pushing into new verticals, any sane Google CEO would do just the same to grow the company’s revenues. However, when they go into new markets, they must make sure that they don’t only copy or aggregate the work of third parties and collect advertising money from it. In fact, Google must offer users real technological improvements in order to justify a change in traffic. if aggregated user reviews from different sources are better for the user than organic SERPs containing TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews, then it might be justified to have such aggregated content pages.

    However, since Google owns the end user up to the point when she is lead away from the search engine, it is very hard to determine what might be best for her – unless you are Google! Here it boils down to the question, whether we really want to see Google being regulated. The notion of disrupting the very mother of most of our companies might sound tempting, but is also dangerous to say the least. What would a regular say about having dozens of SERPs full of TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews? Shouldn’t there be hotel websites? What is really best for the user?

    It seems as if there really is no easy solution….

     
    • John Pope

      @Johannes

      If you want a very thorough examination on the real affects of monopolies and how they are, potentially, not in the best interest of the public at large (if they’re not regulated) read The Master Switch by Timothy Wu http://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Information-Empires-Borzoi/dp/0307269930.

      After doing so, I’m pretty sure your perspective on Google will change dramatically. They may be engine that got you to where you are today, but make no mistake about it, they are also your biggest potential threat in the future.

      With regards to your comment “The notion of disrupting the very mother of most of our companies might sound tempting, but is also dangerous to say the least.” Rest assured, there would be plenty of competent alternatives ready and willing to fill the search void, if and when that hypothetical scenario occurred. You and Get Your Guide have absolutely nothing to worry about… that is of course, unless Google wants to enter your segment of travel as well.

      Wait a minute, I recall something about an acquisition Google made a few months back… http://www.tnooz.com/2010/05/22/news/google-buys-online-travel-guide-ruba/
      http://www.tnooz.com/2010/08/02/news/ruba-shuts-website-ten-weeks-after-sale-to-google/

      You shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact that will have for you guys.

      It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Google is already cooking up something to compete with you directly. If and when they do, best case scenario (for you) is that they become a meta-search engine for tours and activities and start charging you a tariff (aka AdWords fees) for you to reach their search audience rather than receiving the free and direct organic search traffic you’re currently enjoying.

      Worst case scenario, they aggregate all the same content that Get Your Guide has and send the traffic directly to the supplier and make you guys virtually irrelevant. Either way, you can count on the fact that your customer acquisition costs are going to rise dramatically in future.

      Don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got what Google wants… consumer / user data on what people want to do, and actually do, when they travel. The more successful you are, the more of a target you become. Pretty straightforward.

      My advice… be careful what you wish for!

      God speed.

       
  5. Jordi

    Do you mean FakeAdvisor? :)

     
  6. Stuart

    I think what grates is Google’s suggestion that in agreeing to be indexed by Google you’re also agreeing to allow them to use your content as a scraper would to compete against you.

    And, as we’re well aware, Google is a scraper of size.

    There needs to be an option in Google Webmaster tools where you can opt in or opt of each of Googles scraping packages. Something like:

    Search Yes/No
    Places Yes/No
    Maps Yes/No
    Knol Yes/No
    etc

    By G’s own rules Places should never have ranked in the first place. It was initially a TripAdvisor of old school with a bunch of near empty templates. The only way it could rank (cough cough, putting aside any unfair treatment) was to use the content of others to gain traction – and even then, why should it have been ranked when other sites using repackaged content got nuked by a panda. Sure Yelp gets thrown a bone in the form of some referrer traffic, but as we’re seeing that was a bit of a pyrrhic win.

    Google is in the process of shifting from “organising the world’s information” to “Having all the information on Google and organising it inhouse”

    It’s a problem.

     
    • John Pope

      Hear, hear @Stuart.

      You are spot on. Google’s “do as I say, not as I do” behavior is hypocrisy at a monumental scale.

       
  7. Margo

    All hypocrites at the end of the day – do not want to see any of them with complete control so good to see them at loggerheads with each other – the user will gain………..Tripadvisor getting “upset” with the extorsion tactics of Google what a joke! see what happens if you do not take a paid listing with Tripadvisor you are punished , now they are using another much abused word by the phoneys ” community” anytime I hear certain folk use this word ( for their own ends) I shudder !

     
  8. TravMonkey

    @Ian I thought that Facebook search engine was supposed to be Bing? With their Bing/Facebook tie up… and Bing brings back poor results as seemingly their algorithm still relies heavily on backlink data.

    I agree with @Daniele Beccari to an extent, you can either be on Google which is the world’s most popular search engine or not.

    I see TripAdvisor as quite an old technology… I’m sure we’ll see something more advanced take over unless they revamp the technology and innovate.

     
  9. Arantxa Ros

    We are all responsable of creating a ” monster” called Google, but there’s life after Google and also Tripadvisor. If as users and brands responsables used other engines, power would decrease, but we all go to the fastest and popular, in the long term, this is what happens.

     
  10. Ian

    Completely disagree @Timothy

    Google is only evil because we’ve allowed them to be. We’ve managed to convince ourselves that Google is Number 1, and accept any failing in their product (much like we do with our love for Apple).

    With all the ‘like’ buttons out there, don’t think Facebook isn’t indexing the web and going to at some stage provide a a better, more personalized search engine.

    Then we’ll have a new evil to fight. But in the changeover the travel industry might see a change of guard because some fools thought Google would remain number 1….

     
    • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

      We live in a F.A.G. world (Facebook, Apple, Google) Do I like that? No – I would like to live in a world with fair and equal opportunities yes.

      So given that what I want and what we have are not aligned – we have to work hard at the infrastructure end to ensure fair and equal opportunity.

      I do not believe in the wisdom of the crowd as being the ultimate arbiter (nor as FB would have me believe the wisdom of my “friends”).

      Clearly Google cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. The secrecy has to come off for starters. The issue of whether Google is evil cannot be judged by intent alone.

      Cheers

       
  11. Daniele Beccari

    Robot.txt?

    User-agent: *
    Disallow: /reviews

    Uh-oh! No traffic anymore, what happened?

     
    • John Pope

      @ Daniele

      As you’ve illustrated, it’s pretty easy for all opponents of Google’s practices to stop them from using, indexing or scraping their content if they really don’t want them to have it. But realistically, that’s not a pragmatic or commercially feasible action to take… we all know that.

      However, consider this, what if all of the most popular web properties stopped Google from indexing their sites and only allowed their content to be displayed on a more “commercially acceptable” or “agnostic” search engine?

      In the same way that some hotel brands pulled their content from Expedia when they were not happy with the Expedia terms an conditions. Or the way that the US networks pulled content from YouTube and Comcast because they couldn’t agree on satisfactory commercial terms.

      I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility for content owners to get fed up with Google’s tactics and that could ultimately lead users / consumers to go to the conduit (search engine) that does present the content they’re looking for.

      I’m guessing an open source (Wikipedia-type), agnostic search application may not be too far away from the minds of people who could make it happen.

      Maybe the revolutionary solution, I alluded to above, that might knock Google off it’s dominant perch.

       
  12. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    While this was a debate of questionable practices in a variety of different orders, we have to accept that Google is no longer in the business of providing service to the benefit of the consumer but to the benefit of Google. Whether that is intentional or not is no longer the debate.

    Google Instant hurts long tail players, so does Simple Answer.

    It is in my view a not so subtle way for Google to be able to put pressure on a few players and therefore co-erce them accordingly. Having too many results makes that harder for Google to influence the market. And treating all players equally has become an anathema to Google in totality. The embodiment of fat lazy and almighty.

    Google seems to think that because IT believes that it is not doing evil – it completely fails to comprehend that the impact of its actions ripple out across the entire spectrum.

    In my view Schmidt and Page have now become the personification of Evil itself. The very opposite to what they purport to provide. Evil is what Evil does – not what one says.

    This is so sad to see that greed has replaced altruism. What an example to show the rest of the world?

    If Microsoft was the evil empire – Google has to be the evil universe. The pervasive essence of their impact cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.

    Very sad. for those of us who wanted to believe that a large corporation was capable of doing good.

    Timothy

     
    • John Pope

      @Timothy

      Tell us all how you really feel. ;)

      Agree with everything you said. Candor + reason is a combination surely lacking on the web today, not just on this topic either.

      Kudos.

       
  13. Ian

    With the arrogant way Tripadvisor treats the rest of the travel industry, I have no sympathy for them.

     
  14. Anders Fredriksson

    The problem is not Google’s way of handling the situation with “blackmail” tactics. The problem is backward thinking business people at Yelp and Expedia that don’t understand that it actually gives them value to have “their” content displayed on Google Places. How could it be a bad thing?

    This is almost as stupid as newspapers accusing Google of plagiarism for indexing their articles.

    *sigh*

     
    • John Pope

      @Anders

      I’m certainly not an advocate of Yelp or Expedia, but your suggestion that they are “backward thinking” and “don’t understand that it actually gives them value to have “their” content displayed on Google Places. How could it be a bad thing?” is, IMHO, pretty naive.

      Do you not think that both Yelp and Expedia have carefully and thoroughly measure and analysed the impact of “their” content displayed on Google Places and determined it to be negative?

      I’m not going to comment on the validity of your comments on newspapers… think you can probably predict my opinion on that one.

      By suggesting that all of the opponents of Google’s tactics are stupid because they’re not ecstatic to have Google poach their “original content” is, in itself, less than insightful (trying to remain cordial). I’m pretty sure they all understand very clearly what is in their best interests. I’m not sure, however, they’ll be ringing you for advice on the subject anytime soon.

      So what then do you think is Yelp, Expedia, et al’s motivation for objecting to Google’s practices? Surely, it can’t be solely because you think they’re stupid or short-sighted.

      Or maybe it’s all just a charade and grandstanding PR stunt?

      @Dennis

      Your reference and example of a “digital cameras” search, I think, is a perfect illustration of how Google “cooks the results” (stealing from Senator Mike Lee) in their favor.

      You identify correctly that the Best Buy link is first in the organic results. Personally, I think this is a bit of window dressing or a red-herring attempt to cite an example of how “objective or agnostic” their SERPs and algorithm are thus providing evidence of their “objectivity” under future anti-competitive scrutiny. In reality, the more visual Google Product camera images directly below the first organic result dominate the page and, in effect, render the Best Buy link as irrelevant.

      I’m no usability expert but I’d be willing to bet my next months salary (£22.50… I’m overpaid) that the camera images would light up like a Vegas skyline in a usability heat map study. And I’m also 100% sure that Google knows this very well themselves, or else they’d change it to make it so.

      Also, the image results in the right-hand column Ad listings would surely light up brightly in the same usability heat map. In both instances, they are undeniably serving the interests of Google. Google’s rhetoric that it really only reflects the best interest of users is nothing but clever executive semantics… which is a polite way of saying “it’s total bullshit”. Nobody can tell me that an organic link to an aggregator (Amazon, Overstock, local camera shops, etc.) of camera content is not better, or more relevant than five camera images with links to a Google property.

      I’m also not suggesting that, being a public, for-profit company, Google should be doing anything else; it is the most appropriate strategy to follow. As I’ve stated previously on Tnooz, their primary and legal obligation is to act in the best interests of their shareholders (maximise profit). So, with that being the case, it only makes sense that their SERPs will reflect that motive. The SERP is, after all and without question, THE MOST VALUABLE ASSET THEY HAVE, full stop.

      To believe that Google’s SERPs are objective, agnostic or delivered “in the best interests of their users” is both naive and wishful thinking. Google exists to make money, that’s it. It’s very true what Eric Schmidt says that “competition is just a click away” but in reality, there are no real competitors… even their competitors know that. Google is too ingrained in the habits and conditioning of the Internet community, their network effects are too powerful a force to compete against – that is the reality. Until something else comes along that is overwhelmingly revolutionary, Google’s market dominance in search will remain in tact, and Google, better than anybody, understands this perfectly.

      The question being debated at the moment in the media, government and society at large is whether it’s FAIR or ANTI-COMPETITIVE for Google to engage in these tactics not IF they are doing it… they most certainly are doing it, any fool can see that.

      Now the real question becomes, will today’s less than expert regulators around the world, with their own sets of motivations, objectives and political bias, conclude that the current REALITY is in the best interests of the public at large?

      Time will tell… but you can be sure of one thing, their conclusions will have huge implications on the future of innovation and competition on the web for most industries and the overall health of society in general.

      As @Timothy ponders, do we want to live in a world where F.A.G. (Facebook, Apple, Google) dominates the space and ultimately becomes the gatekeepers of success on the web? Pretty poignant question to consider I’d say.

      Not sure that was the vision that Tim Berners Lee had in mind when he released this platform for all to benefit from and has unquestionably changed the world for here ever after.

       
    • Vito Perrone

      To me it is clear that Google is using their dominant position to direct more and more traffic to their money making services such as google place, flight search, hotel search. How can anybody think that for a search of “Hotel Rome” displaying 10 hotels that cover most of the page is a user oriented choice? On places Google can make money and this pushes down all the other results – where people can find real choice – which Google does not make any money from. Is this so evident only to me??

       
 
 

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