Increasingly, people who use Google are placing themselves in a virtual gated community, or what was once known as „a company town“ – you can go anywhere you like, as long as you use the company’s roads and you can buy anything you like, as long as you shop at the company’s stores. Today, this online company town does not objectively lack the supply of anything, but the cost is a tremendous state of dependency.
(Deutsche Fassung: „Eine Gefahr für den Verbraucher“ von Monique Goyens)
Given the scale of the World Wide Web, search engines are indispensable for finding relevant responses to consumers’ queries. Millions of Europeans use search engines daily to source information most relevant to them and access content of their choice. Google happens to be the most frequented search engine in Europe; Google’s services have even been adopted in schools as well as our business and private life.
Google is becoming a gatekeeper
As a search engine Google has built much of its success on the repeated claims of its executives that its search results are neutral and objectively generated.
Consumers trust search results to be impartial, based solely on relevance and without manipulation of the order. In 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said “[W]e work very, very hard to keep the answers – the natural search answers completely unbiased. We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results”.
Google continues to expand its range of activities and develop its own services and products – Gmail, YouTube, Maps, Calendar to name a few. It is becoming something of a gatekeeper to the internet and is uniquely positioned to direct consumers to information, while it continues to acquire a great deal of users’ personal information. To do without Google is often no real option when the worldwide number 2 – Baidu – is from China and could represent a language hurdle for most European consumers for the foreseeable future.
Google reduces consumer choice
Google’s launch of its search, which it calls ‘universal’ has allowed it to display its preferred results prominently among what it calls the “vertical results” we see. The combination of the position and the prominence with which Google’s verticals are displayed leads users to focus their attention on those results. The results page is not the consequence of Google’s supposedly “neutral” algorithm. Rather, it is a deliberate decision for its own commercial purposes. Such practices cause consumer harm.
First, Google’s deliberate promotion of its verticals without clearly notifying users the promoted results are not ranked due to relevance amounts to misleading consumers. Google and other search engines have led users to believe search results are built on relevance. Google has since gone on to abuse this trust.
Secondly, by diverting traffic away from competing businesses who depend on hits from search results, Google threatens their survival, stifles innovation and reduces consumer choice.