FTC clears Google of search bias after two-year antitrust probe

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Search giant Google has been cleared of antitrust allegations and search bias by the Federal Trade Commission in the US.

The company was investigated for two years following allegations it gave its own products and services preferential positions in its search results, and stifled the rankings of competing products and services.

The FTC agreed that Google did give some services preferential treatment - it could hardly deny that YouTube videos often feature high up in the results, for instance - but investigators said sites like YouTube were extremely popular and in most cases, Google was giving searchers exactly what they wanted

Microsoft, among others, thought otherwise. It made complaints to the FTC that Google was acting as a monopoly - claiming Google-owned services like the Maps service, or YouTube, were ranked higher in its results than similar competing sites, which constrained consumer choice and created a monopoly. Microsoft, itself was subject to a similar investigation several years ago, also suggested that Google actively "pushed" competing products and services down its rankings.

But that was not so, says the FTC.

Five FTC commissioners say they "exhaustively" investigated Google's practices and found no evidence of search bias.

However, Google was rapped for continuing the "unfair conduct" of Motorola Mobility after acquiring the company, and Microsoft remains angry that Google is refusing to develop a YouTube app for Windows Phone operating system - even though it has produced one for another rival, Apple.

Google's search share in the US is around 70%, much lower than in the UK, where it dominantly covers around 89% of the market. Antitrust concerns were raised because, with such a huge market share, Google could be seen to be creating a monopoly by preferentially displaying its own products at the expense of others'.

For rivals ploughing cash into SEO and Internet marketing to rank in Google, this would have been a galling tactic: but the FTC claims Google keeps a great user experience at heart, not its own traffic.

"Although some evidence suggested it was trying to remove competition, the primary reason was to improve user experience," said Jon Liebowitz, director of the FTC, announcing the closure of the probe.

What was unfair, though, according to the FTC, was Google's decision to continue Motorola Mobility's use of "standards-essential patents", to try to block rival gadgets like consoles or smartphones from being sold. Liebowitz said Motorola had started being a bit naughty over the SEPs, seeking injunctions on companies using them who had actually been promised licences, not litigation. When Google bought Motorola, it continued down this route, when it should have stopped, he said.

On top, Google has been forced to agree to legal changes, enforceable by law, to stop scraping content for use in its results and to agree not to limit organic rankings for businesses who don't use 'vertical search' services like Google Local or Google Shopping.

In Europe, Google is still taking to the European commission about a similar investigation, ongoing since November 2010. Given Google's larger share in Europe, the EC may come out with a different verdict to the FTC.

A Google spokesman welcomed the FTC report and claimed the company is simply trying to improve search experiences for users.

"The conclusion is clear," said David Drummond, chief counsel for Google. "Google's services are good for users and good for competition."

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