EU: Google Antitrust Concessions “Unacceptable” As Second Study Condemns “Rival Links”

google-eu-200pxEuropean Union competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia announced Friday in a Spanish radio interview that Google’s second round of concessions in its current antitrust settlement proposal were “unacceptable.” The main obstacle to settlement is still Google’s treatment of competitors and its “own content” in “vertical search” results.

Almunia was directly involved in negotiating the original settlement proposal with Google, which offered to put links to competitors’ sites in a privileged position in search results. He seemed initially (and perhaps naively) surprised when it was almost immediately condemned by European competitors and Google critics during a “market test” comment period.

A study sponsored by anti-Google lobbying group FairSearch.org argued Google’s presentation of the three “rival links” in search results did little to drive traffic to alternative websites. Another round of competitive concessions were submitted by Google in September. The so-called “rival links” were still the centerpiece of that proposal.

second FairSearch-sponsored study (conducted by the same two US academics that produced the initial research) concluded that Google’s current rival links approach was still not going to have a meaningful impact on competition:

[W]e found Google’s Second Commitments are not likely to materially increase or restore consumer choice or competition in the vertical search markets at issue. Google’s Second Commitments do not achieve the Commission’s stated objective of materially increasing the visibility of rivals and the awareness of those rivals by consumers.

I was also recently made aware of another piece of rival links research. It was sponsored by another anti-Google lobbying organization (ICOMP) and carried out by the Institute of Communication and Media Research in Germany. I was assured in email the study was unbiased and independent. It came to a conclusion very similar to the recent FairSearch research.

Eye tracking rival links

Using eye tracking, it examined how people interacted with the Google rival links SERPs and where their attention was directed on the page. I’m not going to go into detail about the methodology or the results; I’ve embedded the full study below for your review.

The ICOMP-sponsored study concluded that the rival sites weren’t prominent enough and were overshadowed by images in Google ads or Google’s own structured content at the top of the page. The following conclusions were take verbatim from the ICOMP press materials:

  • Google’s ‘Sponsored’ results consistently attract the largest amount of the users’ total visual attention
  • Alternative search sites (rival links) do not draw enough visual attention to prompt the users to click on them
  • Visual attention for organic links is negligible compared to the ‘image enhanced’ Google elements placed above them

Looking at the ICOMP and FairSearch studies together, they argue for more prominent placement of rival sites at the top of the SERP and in ways that aren’t trumped by Google ads or by structured Google-generated content. These studies can and will be critiqued on the basis of the fact that they came from anti-Google organizations whose missions are to restrain the company in various ways.

It also appears however that the conclusions of the research will have to be addressed on some level before the European Commission (EC) will sign off on a settlement proposal. That’s probably going to require a more dramatic restructuring the SERP and limiting Google’s ability to control the presentation of content elements on the page.

If I’m correct it would fundamentally frustrate Google and its ability to “innovate” in the display of search results. However that is starting to appear to be the price of settlement. Alternatively Google could refuse to make further concessions and simply risk fines, which could run into the billions.