Google Inc.’s smaller rivals were asked by European regulators investigating the company’s businesss practices whether they were prevented from competing more broadly with the world’s largest search engine.
Specialized “vertical search” services were asked if they had considered adding extra products to compete head-to-head with Google and how much that would cost, according to one of three questionnaires obtained by Bloomberg News that were sent out as part of a European Union antitrust probe.
Google is being investigated by the European Commission over claims it discriminated against other services in its search results and stopped some websites from accepting rival ads. A Microsoft Corp. Internet unit and other competitors were among the complainants.
The 27-nation EU’s antitrust authority asked rivals if they had “ever considered/planned upgrading” their “vertical online search services in order to introduce a horizontal search service.” Vertical search engines limit their answers to one category, such as travel information. Google, Microsoft’s Bing and others offer horizontal search engines that comb all categories for answers.
Another question sought views on whether Google’s search function hurt vertical search engines and if companies were “aware of the existence of features in Google’s natural search algorithm” which “might penalize the ranking or display of your vertical search websites.”
Companies were also asked if they had “ever noticed a sudden significant change” in their Google search ranking and whether that triggered a plunge in visitor numbers.
Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels, said the company “worked hard to do the right thing by our users and our industry” by ensuring that ads are clearly marked and that users and advertisers can take data with them when they switch services. “There’s always going to be room for improvement and so we’ll be working with the commission to address any concerns.”
Amelia Torres, a spokeswoman for the commission, didn’t respond to a call and an e-mail seeking comment. She said on Jan. 5 that the EU didn’t have any conclusions on Google’s conduct and was “only investigating at the moment” to determine whether any competition rules were broken.
The commission has power to impose fines of as much as 10 percent of revenue for monopoly abuses. The EU’s highest-ever penalty of 1.06 billion euros ($1.42 billion) was against Intel Corp. in 2009.
In a second questionnaire to advertisers, companies were asked if spending with Google “has ever had an influence on your ranking” and whether Google had ever mentioned that increasing advertising spending could improve a search ranking.
Google says on its website that it “never accepts money to include or rank sites in our search results.” Advertising accounted for almost 97 percent of the Mountain View, California-based company’s revenue in 2009, or about $22.9 billion.
Regulators also asked advertisers whether clauses on Google’s AdWords contracts made it too costly or too difficult to transfer ad campaign data to another online platform.
A third questionnaire to website owners asks if Google’s AdSense prevents them from displaying ads from other online ad providers. It also asked whether AdSense contracts or advertising rebates were linked to placing a Google search box or toolbar on the site and accepting other Google services.
Google competitors including Microsoft’s Ciao from Bing filed an antitrust complaint against Google last year and the commission opened a formal probe on Nov. 30. There has been separate criticism from French, German and U.K. data-protection regulators over Google’s Street View service.
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