Google is a monopoly in local search. Whether they leverage their monopoly power and intentionally disadvantage smaller competitors is probable. But that disadvantaging is what would need to be proved to make the case for any antitrust remedy to be proposed.
But when I hear Elizabeth Warren say in a speech that in 2012 the FTC staff noted that Google used “its dominant search engine to harm rivals of its Google Plus user review feature” I have to wonder who is this woman? She is clearly bright so why would she be spouting a completely specious argument? And then I hear Yelp’s Luther Lowe mimic the line I wonder if maybe they are using the same bad researcher for their talking points.
It’s amazing how with one dumb statement you can call into question a whole line of reasoning because that statement has been so disabused by the actual outcomes.
A reasoned look back at Google Plus since 2012 would indicate that Yelp wasn’t the target but a bit player in their plans. But regardless Google’s Plus plans went terribly awry.
In 2012 Google did roll reviews into Google Plus. Its apparent objective at the time was to artificially inflate Plus usage in their battle with the other looming monopolist, Facebook. By taking products both small (reviews) and large (YouTube) (and a ton of others) and wrapping them up in the big whole of Plus, Google was hoping to aggregate enough users of the forced march to scale their budding social network. They thought that their many disparate users, including those leaving and reading reviews, would jump start Plus. I don’t see how it worked in reverse. Having reviews on Google Plus didn’t or wouldn’t increase the visibility of reviews or hurt a competitor.
But not only did the Google plan not work but it back fired. YouTube users revolted. And in the review space, it became so hard for users to write reviews that fewer folks were writing them.
Because users had to have a Google account AND create a new Google Plus account to leave a review there was so much friction that it became very difficult for most users to ever get to the point of actually leaving a review. In research I have looked at from last year, Facebook and Yelp had, over a significant timeframe, far outpaced both the absolute and relative numbers and growth rates of reviews left at Google Plus. In the end they both passed Google by a significant margin.
Clearly Google’s “grand scheme” didn’t work. Not only didn’t it put a dent in Facebook it actually helped Yelp. In fact the plan was so bad that Google has spent the last two years disentangling local and reviews from Plus. By this spring when Google “upgraded” Google Plus they ripped reviews totally out of Plus. If anything Yelp gained by Google’s actions.
Thats an amazing use of monopoly power. Even if disadvantage was the intent (and I am not sure it was), it never materialized. So to use it as a basis for current critique of Google’s monopoly power seems laughable.
For an argument to win an anti-trust case it has to be logically coherent and observationally consistent and determined to be factually true. Not only was this argument not consistent it turned out to be not just not true but false.
Do I think that there are ways that Google disadvantages Yelp and TripAdvisor? I think it possible. I have seen anecdotal evidence that it occurs and it seems to be baked into the relationship between Google’s indexing, the Knowledge Graph algo and Yelp’s strong SEO.
But it isn’t with Google Plus or even reviews on Google and Warren and Yelp basing their argument on these sorts of “facts” weakens their argument to the point of absurdity. Shame on both Elizabeth Warren and Yelp.