Will Users Be Losers in “EU versus Google”?

BRUSSELS – Is Google’s dominance of online search coming to an end? That is a question worth asking, as the European Commission investigates antitrust allegations regarding Google’s online-search business model.

Type “Restaurant Florence” into Google’s search field, and a list of restaurants that you might want to visit during your next trip to Italy will appear. The top suggestions are Google’s own. Farther down the page, links to so-called “vertical search” sites – such as TripAdvisor, Fodor’s, ViaMichelin, and Lonely Planet – appear.

But users often do not see these links. With Google’s links capturing most of the site’s search traffic, concerns have been raised that Google manipulates its search algorithm to suppress the results of its competitors, while unfairly promoting its own services – a practice known as “search bias.” The European Commission has other concerns, too – namely, that Google might be using third-party content without authorization and entering into agreements to prevent its advertising partners from displaying ads on rival search engines.

Reservations about the use of third-party content could easily be addressed through carefully designed rules that would allow, say, content providers to opt out of Google’s results. Addressing concerns about Google’s display of vertical-search sites, which target specific industries or sectors, would be trickier.