Hey, Eurocrats, I Like Google Shopping
There's a problem with the European Commission's decision to pursue Google for allegedly abusing its dominance in Internet search: If Google is forced to change its service as competitors demand, consumers will be no better off. Check it out. I did.
Here's why Margrethe Vestager, European Union's commissioner for competition, is concerned that Google "has given an unfair advantage to its own comparison shopping service:" When you use any of the company's European search sites to look for a product, the first thing that pops up is a set of results from Google Shopping:
The EC has been debating what to do about this since 2010, when it first launched the Google investigation at the behest of companies running competing comparison shopping services. Here's the commission's "statement of objections," to which Google now must respond and then await a decision:
In order to remedy the conduct, Google should treat its own comparison shopping service and those of rivals in the same way. This would not interfere with either the algorithms Google applies or how it designs its search results pages. It would, however, mean that when Google shows comparison shopping services in response to a user's query, the most relevant service or services would be selected to appear in Google's search results pages.
This would mean either showing results from various comparison shopping services wherever the search algorithm places them, or working out a way to show them next to the Google Shopping display. Here's a screenshot of a solution that Google suggested in response to previous EC requirements (from a European Consumer Organization document; you can check out alternate designs in this Google proposal):
The display offers three alternatives to Google Shopping: Supaprice, Kelkoo and Shopzilla. To get a sense of how useful such added links would be, I did my own comparison of Google Shopping to two of these services (Kelkoo and Shopzilla; I was unable to find a German site for Supaprice), and to the popular Nextag.
Google's service worked fine. I was easily able to rank the German gas grill offerings by price, from lowest to highest, using my preferred language, English:
The other services didn't work nearly as well. For one, their German versions all required a command of German -- something many of my fellow expats in Berlin sadly lack (mine is sketchy, too). Maddeningly, Shopzilla.de wouldn't sort the results by price, though I checked the option and tried several times to refresh the page:
The other two services obliged, but what they showed me as a result was definitely not gas grills:
As a consumer, I was underwhelmed. I don't want the EC to force Google to promote inferior competing services at the expense of its own, well-designed one. Nor would I like Google to present search results as its top competitor in the U.S., Microsoft's Bing, does:
This presentation won't get Microsoft -- one of the complainants in the Google case -- into trouble with European antitrust authorities, but it does nothing for me if I want to shop for a gas grill. I have to go to Google Shopping or one of its competitors to find what I'm looking for.
Few people are inclined to defend a monopoly, and Google is one -- in Europe, its market share in search exceeds 92 percent. Yet I use its comparison shopping product because it works, not because it is imposed on me. It's easy enough to find other services if I'm not satisfied with what Google offers. Once a competitor develops a better alternative, I will probably know of it within days thanks to the social networks or to ads on Google itself. Then, I might install a mobile app for that product and never even use the search engine for comparison shopping again.
Here's how Google put it in an internal memo:
The competition is just one click away — and it’s growing. People can use Bing, Yahoo, Quora, DuckDuckGo, and a new wave of search assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, as well as more specialized services like Amazon, Idealo, Le Guide, Expedia, or eBay. In addition, users increasingly turn to social networks like Facebook and Twitter to find news and suggestions — where to eat or which movies to watch.
It's pointless for European regulators to interfere with the development of a healthy ecosystem in which good products tend to find their way to consumers. In the tech world, empires, and monopolies, form and fall too fast for regulators and their cumbersome procedures to keep up.
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