FTC Ruling Means Business as Usual for Google

FTC wraps up Google investigationUnless you’re someone who pays close attention to the actions of the Federal Trade Commission, you might not have been aware that for the last two years Google has been subject to an antitrust investigation. The FTC has recently ended its investigation against Google and the ruling has been an upset for many Google critics and competitors.

What Was at Issue?

Any small business concerned with SEO, and any agency working with clients, know that Google makes frequent changes to its search algorithms (hundreds, in fact). Some changes are more intense than others, but unless they have a vetted interest in learning about them, consumers rarely notice.

One of the major points of the FTC antitrust investigation was the fact that, according to Edward Wyatt of the New York Times, “For certain categories of searches – travel information, shopping comparisons and financial data … – Google has begun presenting links to its own related services.”

This is a problem for many businesses and agencies that spend money on Google’s AdWords and search-related services to be ranked higher in search results. Here Google arbitrarily decides to place its own services ahead of paid customers. Again, Edward Wyatt explains a problem for competitors with this strategy, stating, “those competitors are forced to advertise more to draw traffic. And advertisers who aren’t competitors have fewer places to go to reach consumers, meaning Google can use its market power to raise advertising prices.”

The Results of the Probe

Against the wishes of many critics, the FTC essentially let Google off scot-free. According to Michael Liedtke at the Associated Press the FTC found no “reason to impose radical changes” to Google’s search structure.

The slap-on-the-wrist agreement the FTC and Google made covers a few points. First of all, Google must agree to charge “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” prices for licensing patents used in mobile and computer technology; hopefully this will bring down the patent wars a notch.

Google also agreed to, when requested, stop providing bits of information copied from other sites to answer search results. The company agreed to modify its online advertising to make it easier for advertisers to run campaigns on rival networks. The worst of the criticism that Google received was that they acted aggressively.

A Problem of Perspective?

I’ll be honest in saying that I did not follow this FTC investigation too closely. But Nicholas Carlson at the Business Insider has done a great job explaining why the FTC failed to impose any harsh penalties on the reigning search engine.

He writes that the FTC focused too much on whether Google’s dominance of search hurts or helps consumers. According to Carlson, what they should have focused on is “whether Google’s massive market share in Web search hurts the businesses that buy Google search ads.” This point makes a great deal of sense to me; paying for something only to have it somewhat undermined by the company providing that very same service is a bit off from my perspective.

Google still holds a very comfortable lead in the search market. If they aren’t careful with issues like this, we might see businesses and agencies looking at other providers. Ultimately though, the ruling means that it’s business as usual for Google and all parties involved in SEO and search advertising. The rules of the game are still the same, and unless a significant amount of users adopt other search engines, I don’t think the rules (or the costs) will be changing any time soon.

What do you think about the FTC ruling with Google? Was it right?

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Patrick currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is studying for a Master's Degree in Intercultural Relations. Upon graduation from Penn State in 2008, he spent two years overseas in Kyrgyzstan with the U.S. Peace Corps. While writing is currently his chosen way to put food on the table, he loves fitness and exercise, which he believes makes up for his avid computer gaming habit.

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