FTC Report on Google Practices Sounds Alarms for Travel Industry and Beyond
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A leaked report from a two-year investigation of Google indicates Federal Trade Commission staffers had strong concerns about Google’s business practices and recommended for the FTC to pursue an antitrust lawsuit against the global Internet search company in 2012.
Instead, the FTC commissioners voted unanimously to drop the investigation in 2013.
The report, which was mistakenly released to The Wall Street Journal by the agency following a Freedom of Information Act request, is rife with concerns from FTC staffers.
And it brings up the question: Will it soon be “Google or Bust” for consumers, in the travel industry and beyond?
Staffers said in the report that Google engaged in illegal practices on several accounts. According to the staff, Google not only illegally used content from other sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and Amazon to boost its own websites, but it also threatened to remove competitor sites from its search engine if they simply asked for their content not to be used.
Google also charged advertisers more if they were considering running campaigns on rival search engines, in addition to blocking websites that used its search results from working with competitor search engines like Bing, according to staffers.
Other practices by Google are also being called into question, even if they are technically legal.
For example, you know Google’s flight-search tool everybody has been raving about lately, Google Flights? Well, you’ll notice when you search “flights,” Google Flights is the first thing that comes up. That’s going to show up first, no matter what, even when other sites such as Expedia or KAYAK offer better deals or have better organic Internet traffic or have paid handsome money to be among the first listings in the search results…simply because Google wants it that way.
Google has admitted it engages in this practice, claiming it is just trying to improve the search experience and that its own services get information out to shoppers more expediently. FTC staffers said the practice causes "real harm to consumers and to innovation,” but the commissioners concluded that there was evidence that it improves the overall search experience for users.
Beyond Google Flights, Google also recently introduced Google Hotels in the travel space. Currently, both Google Flights and Google Hotels don’t have options to shop through Google itself, instead offering a mixture of OTA listings and direct links to airlines and hotels. That could obviously change, though. Google has not revealed what its ultimate plans are for the flight-search tool yet (TravelPulse reached out to Google for comment, but did not receive a response).
The implications of Google using its overwhelming reach and power to do what’s right for the company—and the company only—could be earth shattering. It’s already dictating where advertisers and services show up on search pages—regardless of their popularity among the public.
If it starts turning into an OTA, there could be far-reaching consequences for the industry. For example, if Google Flights and Google Hotels start pointing travelers to Google booking sites, that puts competing travel companies at an extreme disadvantage given Google’s premier (and free) placement on the top of search results. And while it must be said that services such as Google Flights have received rave reviews for their user-friendly nature and customizable options, you also have to think about protecting against a monopoly.
Europe is well aware of Google’s influence. The European Commission has been conducting an antitrust investigation on Google’s search practices for more than four years. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who is responsible for making a ruling, is currently taking a lot of heat from members of the European Parliament (and Europe in general) to resolve the investigation.
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