The EU has opened an anti-trust inquiry into Google, not the first time the search giant has been in trouble with the EU but perhaps potentially the most serious inquiry yet. Google’s market share in search and its potential for abusing that position have always been a concern, and in the EU you have to add to that the normal backlash generated among regulators by local competitors. The problem that’s alleged is that smaller firms see their sites downgraded in positioning.
My personal feeling here is that the positioning of search results is a travesty overall. There are dozens of sites that do nothing but try to intercept searches, there are optimization strategies that force higher rankings, and of course then there’s “ad words” paid advertising. In many cases these days, you can’t do a search and find a useful response in the first two or three pages. But does that mean Google is guilty of something? If it did, the same searches with Bing would generate something different, and they’re not much better there. The problem with search is that it’s sponsored. That means it serves the interest of someone other than the person doing the searching. Even the EU complaint is silly at one level; companies complain their rankings aren’t higher, implying that the rankings should be. Why is that? There’s an honest way to do search, but we’d have to pay to search to get it, and that’s not likely to happen.
Google’s not making things easier for itself with some upcoming announcements. On the speculative side there’s the rumor they want local coupon site Groupon, a move that is almost certain to raise concerns about the growing scope and power of Google. Groupon is also a potential aid in a social-network bid by Google, since it would give a tangible reward target (coupons) around which social ecosystems could be built. The other announcement, this one a sure thing, is the Google Editions launch that’s expected literally any moment. That would take Google squarely into the ebook space.
There’s plenty of competition in the ebook market from the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but that has some in the regulatory world worried because it could mean that Google hopes to leverage its previous activities with scanning works that were no longer authoritatively copyrighted and also its search incumbency. What Google says about the program is that it would give the smaller bookstores a stake in ebooks, something they don’t have now and that many say they want. But how the process will work, exactly, isn’t known. It’s doubtful that Google would be able to sell ebooks for third-party readers like Kindle and Nook, which would force it to rely on apps on devices like computers and tablets.
Tablets are expected to put a dent in PC sales next year, but whether Google could climb to ebook success on the tablet space alone is a tough one to predict, particularly given that Apple’s iPad is the top tablet and that Apple has its own ebook aspirations. We’ve been hearing about a Google strategy to create a virtual newspaper that would compete with Murdoch’s iPad daily, but that would certainly create more tension with news organizations already concerned by Google’s delivery of their material in search results.