April 25, 2014

Page To Anti-Trust Critics & Others: “Actions” & Google+ Are An Essential Part Of Search

Posted on 08. Apr, 2012 by in Search Engine Land

Google’s taken flak over the past year from critics about how the company has been integrating actions such as booking flights or hotels into its search results. It’s also faced criticisms that it is leveraging its search dominance to build its Google+ social network. I found it notable that Google CEO Larry Page, in his “2012 Update from the CEO“ letter, essentially pushed back against both criticisms.

Page doesn’t say he’s attacking these criticisms in the update. That’s my own reading between-the-lines. But nothing in the letter would have been presented without a good reason. I think both areas got addressed as part of Google’s continued positioning that what it’s doing with Google+ and with task completion isn’t polluting its search results nor acting anti-competitively but rather simply evolving search.

Google’s Push With Google+

Google’s held nothing back in trying to make Google+ successful. The company, which used to never advertise on television, now routinely seems to have commercials pushing its social network. Speaking of pushing, in January, as part of Search Plus Your World, it pushed its own ads further down in its search results to allow for a “People and Pages on Google+” box to appear.

Those are just two examples among many where Google has been putting its weight behind Google+. But doing this has opened it up to some accusations. Is Google using its dominance in search to unfairly jumpstart its own social network? Is Google ruining its search results by shoving too much Google+ content within them?

The head of Google’s search efforts, Amit Singhal, has previously argued that Google+ is an important part of advancing Google’s search quality. I believe he’s generally right.

Both Google and Bing are using social signals — and need to use them — as a way to further improve results. My story from February, When Everyone Gets The Vote: Social Shares As The New Link Building, explains more about this and the challenge in getting the balance right.

Google+ Needed To Improve Search

Page’s letter adds a further defense. He wrote:

Understanding identity and relationships can also help us improve search.

In other words, for Google to improve, it needs to understand who people really are on the web, plus what they care about. That’s where Google+ comes in, a way for it to better understand relationships as well as who is authoring content. Google had such profiles even before Google+ existed, and Google+ is a continuation of this.

Expect this also to be used as a defense of why Google+ need to exist regardless of players like Facebook or Twitter. Page is reemphasizing that profiles are part of search. They’re not just some social add-on. They’re a key ingredient that any search engine needs.

Fear Not The Personalization

Page also pushes back on concerns about personalization:

Imagine how much better search would be if we added… you. Say you’ve been studying computer science for awhile like me, then the information you need won’t be that helpful to a relative novice and vice versa. If you’re searching for a particular person, you want the results for that person—not everyone else with the same name. These are hard problems to solve without knowing your identity, your interests, or the people you care about.

Recall that we just had a survey showing that Americans apparently consider personalized search not just to be bad but also an invasion of their privacy: Pew Report: 65% View Personalized Search As Bad; 73% See It As Privacy Invasion.

The problem is, no one is going to have a positive reaction if you ask if search engines should “track” what people search for to personalize results for them, in my opinion. But if you rephrase that question such as:

  • If you’ve searched for “travel,” then immediately search for “spain,” do you think it makes sense for search engines to look at both and give you results about “spanish travel?”
  • If you’re searching for football in the UK, do you think search engine should look at your location and provide information about UK football — soccer — rather than the NFL?

There are very good reasons that personalization can be helpful, as I wrote before. But personalization doesn’t sound good when it’s not presented along with real, helpful examples.

Page tries at this, but I didn’t think it was that successful. Google’s Singhal did a better take late last year. But make no mistake. Personalization is being mentioned by Page to help prop it up as an essential, helpful thing for Google to be doing.

Search Needs Social If Other Social Networks Don’t Want To Share…

Page also argues that Google+ itself is an essential part of search and gets in a swipe at Facebook and Twitter:

Privacy considerations certainly limit the information that can be shared between platforms—even if the third parties hosting it were willing to work with Google, which hasn’t always been the case.

Google+ helps solve this problem for us because it enables Google to understand people and their connections….

This kind of next-generation search in which Google understands real-world entities—things, not strings—will help improve our results in exciting new ways. It’s about building genuine knowledge into our search engine.

As I said, Google’s come under fire that it’s favoring its own social network. Page effectively pushes back with a critical distinction. Google+ isn’t social; Google+ is part of search. Google needs to have it to run its search engine, and you can expect to hear that argument again and again, especially as the FTC explores Google+ as part of its on-going anti-trust investigation of Google.

You can also expect to hear Google continue to argue, as it has done already, that it is open to including social network’s data. Of course, there are very good reasons why Facebook and Twitter don’t want to share with Google. A Proposal For Social Network Détente, which I wrote earlier this year, explains more about this and some potential cooperation points all around.

Actions Fair Search Results

Page moves on to a section called “Taking Actions” that especially seems designed to push back on accusations that Google is favoring its own services over those of competitors.

A good search engine should provide the best results possible, not just those that are in its own interests. Some have argued that Google, by showing results from its own shopping search engine or travel search engine, is favoring itself over that user interest as well as competitors. There’s even an argument that doing so violates anti-trust laws, given Google’s dominance in search.

To understand these arguments more, I highly recommend the stories below for more background:

In most cases, I find the arguments against Google to be laughable, on the order of someone objecting that the New York Times doesn’t show the entertainment section from the Los Angeles Times, therefore government regulation is required.

It gets more complicated in some situations, especially where Google properties are destinations (such as YouTube or Google+) as opposed to be outbound-pointing search engines (such as Google Maps or Google Shopping).

Is Search Also Task Completion?

It gets even more complicated where Google is allowing for direct transactions to happen, such as booking flights or hotels. That’s one reason you saw companies like TripAdvisor and Expedia make formal anti-trust complaints to the European Union about Google last week.

Both companies, along with others including Microsoft, are part of the FairSearch group that singles out Google as being anti-competitive, even though many of the exact same complaints can be pointed at Microsoft-backed Bing. You can book hotels and flights directly at Bing, with Kayak getting preferred placement through a deal.

Page makes an important pivot to say that search isn’t just getting links to information but that it’s also about conducting actions right within the search results or getting direct answers within them:

In the early days of Google you would type in a query, we’d return ten blue links, and you would move on fairly happily. Today you want more. If you search for “weather san francisco”, chances are you want… the weather in San Francisco right there on the results page, not another click or two away. So that’s what we now provide

Truly great search is all about turning your needs into actions in the blink of an eye.

Page isn’t the first to say such things. Bing has been pushing on the idea that it’s a “decision engine” since Microsoft relaunched its search engine in 2009. It really hasn’t delivered on that promise of doing direct actions much more than Google, I’d say. Both have direct answers, which were commonly provided as far back as 2004 among the major search engines. As for task completion, both Google and Bing offer this in relatively limited ways.

Task completion — actions — are likely to grow, however. As they already have, it has been Google that’s come under pressure for potentially locking out competitors. Google Flight Search, made possible by the ITA acquisition that attracted so much scrutiny, as well as Google Hotel Finder, both especially stand out. Page pulls them into the protective umbrella of being part of core search, in his update:

Last year, for example, we welcomed ITA Software to the Google family. They have strong relationships with the airline industry, and using that data we can now provide more relevant results for travel queries. This means that if you search for “flights from chicago to los angeles”, you get a list of the most relevant flights with prices, and you can book directly with the airline—or click on an ad for an online travel agency.

We’re also experimenting with a feature called Hotel Finder, which enables you to compare prices and book a hotel room right from the results page. It’s all about speeding things up so users can get on with the things that matter in their lives.

See, there’s no anti-trust wrong-doing here, nothing to see. This is just all part of Google being a good search engine, Page seems to be saying. Whether regulators believe that remains to be see. But Google, which has already been arguing many of these points, seems to be refreshing its playbook with Page’s letter.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Features: Analysis | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Google: Google+ | Google: Personalized Search | Google: Search Plus Your World | Google: Web Search | Top News


About The Author: is editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also oversees Search Engine Land’s SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He maintains a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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