Google has been forced to change the way it displays search results in Europe, amid concerns it might be abusing its dominant market position.
The changes come after an EU competition probe, and will see Google adopt a clearer labelling of its own promoted content and more prominent links to its competitors.
The EU Commission has since 2010 been investigating whether the company is unfairly stifling competition. It pointed out several areas of concern.
Now Google has offered to more clearly label search results stemming from its own services such as YouTube, Google Maps or its shopping search function, allowing users to distinguish between natural search results and others promoted by Google.
It also agreed to display some search results from its competitors and links to their services, the Commission said.
Other concessions being offered by Google include:
• To offer all websites the option to opt out from the use of all their content in Google’s search services, while ensuring that any opt-out does not “unduly” affect the sites’ ranking in its general results
• To offer specialised search sites which focus on product search or local search the option to mark certain categories of information so that they are not indexed or used by Google
• To no longer include in its agreements with publishers any written or unwritten obligations that would require them to source online search advertisements exclusively from Google
• To no longer restrict advertisers from running search advertising campaigns across rival ad platforms
The Commission has often taken a harder line with US tech companies than its American counterparts, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. Google, based in Mountain View, California, was able to settle a similar anti-trust complaint on its search business with the FTC in January without making any major concessions on how it runs its search engine.
The Commission is now proposing a market test of the concessions for a month as a test run. That would give competitors the chance to say whether they deem them sufficient.
Once the Commission accepts them – revised or not – they become legally binding for the company for the next five years.
Google has worked closely with the Commission on the concessions’ design until formally submitting them earlier this month.
“The objective of this process is to try to see if we can achieve a settled outcome in this antitrust investigation,” said Commission spokesman Antoine Colombani.
The Commission said Google will “clearly separate promoted links from other web search results by clear graphical features” and “display links to three rival specialised search services close to its own services, in a place that is clearly visible to users.”
Google will also give all websites the option to keep their content from being used in Google’s specialised search services, “while ensuring that any opt-out does not unduly affect the ranking of those web sites in Google’s general web search results,” it said.
In addition, the proposed remedies will give newspaper publishers greater control over what appears in Google’s news aggregator Google News. Google is also giving marketers greater ability to buy ads on rival networks.
The Commission’s investigation was initially triggered by complaints from Google’s rivals such as Microsoft Corp.
Google’s web search service has a market share of over 90 per cent in the EU.
But the Microsoft-backed lobby group Initiative for a Competitive Marketplace (Icomp) was not convinced the changes went far enough.
“It is clear that mere labelling is not any kind of solution to the competition concerns that have been identified. Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites,” it said.
It added it would comment further once it had fully evaluated the proposals.
An earlier US Federal Trade Commission investigation into how Google displayed links to its services concluded there was no competition issue.
Explaining why it took a different view the Commission said: “Bing and Yahoo represent a substantial alternative to Google in web searches in the USA; their combined market share is around 30%. In contrast, Google has been holding market shares well above 90% in most European countries.”
“The way Google presents its web search results therefore has a much more significant impact on users and on the competitive process in Europe than it does in the USA.”
Following the Google announcement Paul Stone, competition and regulatory partner at Charles Russell, said: “The main concern from Google’s competitors was that Google was unfairly biasing search results to list its own services above rival services. The US investigation couldn’t find any evidence to support concerns in this area – and so this may have influenced the European Commission’s to accept separate labelling requirements for Google’s own services, rather than requiring changes to Google’s search algorithms. It remains to be seen whether Google’s competitors think this goes far enough to allay their concerns.”
Vanessa Barnett, technology and media partner at Charles Russell, added: “What we are seeing at Google right now is a shift in approach, possibly a more concilliatory approach to regulators. This is not just in the sphere of competition law but elsewhere, for example privacy, where Google has also recently introduced more ‘up front’ information about cookies.”