Google Antitrust Complaint Filed With FTC

ShopCity the latest to call Google anticompetitive

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ShopCity.com, a network of local shopping sites, has filed an antitrust complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Google. The company shared a copy of the complaint with us. It says:

For most of its existence, ShopCity’s growth has been thwarted by unjustified Google penalties and anticompetitive Google prefacing. These matters were realized in writing with the Commission staff months ago, but the staff has not followed up in any respect.

It goes on to talk about how Google has been engaging in anticompetitive tactics since 2006, and that a number of injured vertical competitors have complained, but none have “received a CID or any other compulsory process necessary for a serious investigation.”

It then goes on to talk about Google penalizing Foundem and JC Penney in different ways, with Foundem getting worse treatment because of being a vertical competitor. More on the Foundem and JC Penney stories here and here respectively.

“The yawning chasm between the reality of Google’s penalty conduct and the pretense of Google’s public proclamations of no manual intervention demanded some further explanation and Google tendered an explanation of sorts shortly thereafter,” the complaint reads. “Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, acknowledged that the company had a program for imposing manual penalties and conceded that Google also released such penalties manually. Most manual penalties expire in thirty days, Cutts asserted. Google also imposed algorithmic penalties, Cutts said, which the company would not release manually. Cutts gave no explanation as to why Penney suffered a penalty of only a few weeks for blatantly cheating in a way that hurt consumers, while Google’s competitors like Foundem languished in the ‘penalty box’ for years for no transgression other than competing against Google.”

It goes on to talk about Google launching Universal Search, pulling in results from its various verticals into the main results, the famous Yelp complaints, and things of this nature.

All of this appears to be aimed at establishing Google’s alleged history of anticompetitiveness, something that has also been a topic of discussion in the Senate.

At its core, the main direct complaint appears to be that Google places its own results above ShopCity’s. “Based on relevance and quality, a ShopCity listing (for, say, a plumber in Midland) might rank near the top of search results (Because of Google’s preferencing, ShopCity could place no higher than the slot behind all of Google’s preferences listings.),” the complaint says. “But Google then took the extraordinary step of dropping all of ShopCity’s listings, generally to the fifth page of search results or beyond, relevance notwithstanding, where few users would ever find them.

Interestingly, when I perform a search for “plumber in midland” I don’t see any Google results whatsoever. Here’s what I see:

Plumber in Midland  

The same search on Bing actually does place Bing’s own local results above all else, despite the complaint saying, “Contrary to recent bleating by Google apologists who claim that other horizontal search providers also preference their own vertical offerings, Microsoft and Yahoo rarely placed their own captive local search results at the top of the page ahead of a ShopCity listing.

plumber in midland  

It’s a similar story with Yahoo:

plumber in midland  

To be fair, this is only one example (I’m sure there are indeed instances where Google puts its own results above ShopCity’s).

Bloomberg shares a quote from Google about ShopCity. A spokesman is quoted as saying, “This company was violating Google’s guidelines against duplicate and auto-generated content — which our users tell us they don’t like. We twice offered the company advice on how to improve their websites.”

Clearly, ShopCity doesn’t feel it’s getting the RESPECT it deserves from Google.

Google Antitrust Complaint Filed With FTC
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  • kathy

    It looks like when you did your search via Google, it had your location in KY and therefore did not pull up the Midland, TX in the Google Places. Also, there are additional states with a Midland (at least MI), so you may need to change your location in Google before it pulls up the places results that a person in Midland, TX would see.

    • http://www.PlacesToEatOkay.com Steven

      With location being a factor in search it’s very hard to get the same exact results to display for everybody. Thanks for pointing that out Kathy. I’ll add that if you are logged into Google it gets worse as sites you have +1’d becomes a factor and so does your previous search history (even if you aren’t logged into any Google service).

      • http://www.digitalframestoday.com Digital frame Guy

        Precisely Steve,
        It gets really frustrating especially when u are trying to see real time search placements and the +1 button keeps showing up

    • http://www.webpronews.com/ Chris Crum

      Kathy, that’s a good point, but when i set the location to Texas it makes no difference. There are still no Google results appearing.

      • http://www.PlacesToEatOkay.com Steven

        Perhaps Google has figured out that people would be changing their location on purpose to see different results as if they were in a different area and simply doesn’t return different results? Anytime I do a search where Google thinks location is a factor I’ve seen the Google Places stuff show up before the organic results, essentially pushing organic results further down the page and absolutely below the fold. So like if I just searched for “Pet Stores” it would show me the Google Places stuff for Pet Stores near me on top above the organic results. In many cases when I search for things I don’t think should bring up Google Places page results, I still am seeing it. While I can’t cite a specific search from memory in that case I’ve been keeping a mental note that it happens quite a bit. I’m sure if some SEO company were to do a bunch of tests they would see the same thing.

  • http://www.shopcity.com Colin Pape

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for writing about the filing.

    Sorry, that should have been clarified as ‘Midland, Ontario’, which is a community in Canada where we have a pilot project (www.shopmidland.com.

    There are so many Midlands that you need to specify the state/province.

    And that comment, in general, applies to results everywhere for everyone serving the local business market; what used to be ‘first’ in the organic results is now ‘first, below the Google local results’, and that is what Gary meant.

    Our primary issue with Google is not one of ranking, though that plays into it, it is one of ‘manual penalization’. Google has admitted to overriding the automated algorithm to block our content from appearing where it would naturally because they have issues with our business model of using multiple domains.

    If all of our content was on one domain, they would treat it differently, and have suggested we run a single domain in the Google Webmaster forums.

    If we were to do that, we would be at a significant disadvantage, as localized domains are what enable us to attract partners who want to promote only the businesses in their community. Localized domains also help overcome the inaccuracies caused by IP-based geolocation systems, and also enable us to effectively make use of traditional offline marketing in the communities we serve.

    To change our model to a single domain would put us at a significant disadvantage, and in our eyes, would remove the competitive threat that we pose to Google’s local initiatives, which are IP-based and online-only for the most part.

    Google themselves have recently begun using localized domains in their campaign to bring small businesses onboard (read about Google buying hundreds of geo domains), which is another reason why their requests seem hypocritical and anticompetitive.

    We are not gaming the system in any way – we block duplicate content, ask not to be indexed where we do not have content, do not interlink sites, etc., but Google still found reason to penalize our sites, even though they are providing consumers with information they want, that other sites do not offer.

    In order to get them to re-include our sites in their search results, we have had to severely handicap our business in ways that other companies, and Google themselves are not required to do (ex. blocking ‘unclaimed’ businesses from being indexed with meta tags, etc.)

    It’s most perplexing when Google states that our sites do not meet their quality guidelines, but then cite them under Google Places, or when they say they contain duplicate content that warrants a penalty, but sites that scrape our content are allowed to rank.

    This inconsistency leads one to question whether they are simply choosing to penalize companies they do not wish to gain traction with consumers, and certainly creates the appearance of anticompetitive behavior.

    We are hardly the only company to face these issues, however, most are too concerned with backlash from Google to come forward. We were in the same position when they did their first round of penalties against our sites, but left others to operate normally. We didn’t want to risk them shutting us down completely. However, when they did shut us down in July, we had nothing to lose so began challenging them openly.

    After the initial story broke in July, we were finally able to obtain a response from Google – before that, it was simply form letters saying we didn’t meet their quality guidelines.

    We filed the complaint because we feel that the FTC should conduct a serious investigation into Google’s use of their web search monopoly to prevent competitors from reaching consumers, and we have had an outpouring of support from other companies that have been affected.

    ShopCity.com was recently asked to join the advisory board of FairSearch.org, and we also launched ShopLocally.com to provide our partners and business members with another channel to reach consumers.

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