CEO of European publishing giant accuses Google of downgrading rivals' search results

Google's motto is 'don't be evil', but - rightly or wrongly - the company regularly finds itself accused of casting aside that mantra in the pursuit of furthering its own business interests. Today, Google has been accused by one of Europe's largest media publishers of "downgrading" its competitors' search results in favour of promoting its own products, while continuing to present those results as objective and independent. 

Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer - the German media giant which owns some of the most well-known, respected and popular European publications, including Die Welt, Bild and Auto Bild - spoke with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, and described the way that Google manages its search results as "unfair". 

He said that - with 91% market share in Germany, and up to 99% of some Eastern European markets - Google Search represents a "quasi-monopoly or a monopoly", and that the company must accept "certain rules of fairness and transparency." He alleged that while Google portrays its results as being objective and impartial, the company is "in a very subjective manner, downgrading products of their competitors and upgrading their own products and services without disclosing that."

He added: "This is not 'fair search', and this is not in the interests of the consumer, and this is reducing competition, because new services that may interfere in the interests of Google have basically no chance to prosper because they are downgraded."

In April, Döpfner published an open letter to Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in a German newspaper in which he described the threat that Google continues to present to companies such as his. He outlined an example in which Google had made a change to its search algorithms with led to a 70% drop in traffic to an Axel Springer site.

Referencing that example today, he said it showed that Google's influence over its own search results is a "concrete threat, not a theoretical issue". He further explained that in that case, it was an Axel Springer price comparison site that suddenly saw the massive drop in traffic, and noted that Google also operates a price comparison service (through Google Products), "and that's why," he added, "it's in their interests that no other players are succeeding in that field." 

He added that the European Commission's proposal to deal with this - in response to numerous complaints from businesses large and small across Europe - will simply "make things worse" for companies. As part of that proposal, he said that Google would still be able to downgrade its rivals results, but would be forced to provide advertising space which companies could buy, in order to position their results more prominently against those of Google's own products.

"This is a very strange proposal," he continued. "I would call that 'protection money'. I mean, it is basically the business principles of the Mafia - you say 'either you pay, or we shoot you'. I think that is not the solution for the problem." 

The BBC put these assertions to Rachel Whetstone, Google senior vice president of communications and public policy, who said: "I just don't think it's really true. She added: "Think about what Google is trying to do. We're ranking results, so somebody has to come top, and somebody has to not come top - that's the nature of a rank - and we're trying to provide the best, most convenient results for our users." 

Pressed repeatedly on the question of whether or not Google would promote its own products over those of its rivals, and if it would do so without making that promotion clear to users, Whetstone said that "it will depend on the query you're typing in." She added: "Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't - it depends. What we're trying to do is provide the most relevant results for users in a very competitive market, where if we don't continue to provide the best results for users, people will go and find their information somewhere else."

Asked about whether Google's motto is still 'don't be evil', Whetstone said: "Yes, I think absolutely, that's the way our founders think about the company; actually 'don't be evil' started with 'don't let money affect your search rankings', and in our organic [search] results, we absolutely are focused on what are the best results, and I understand some of the points that [Axel] Springer are making, but actually, if you go and dig in and look at them, you find that they're just not borne out by the facts."

The full audio interview from BBC Radio 4 is available here

Source: BBC Radio 4, Today programme | Google Mountain View image via turtix / Shutterstock.com

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29 Comments

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I blame Microsoft for this. In the US, I find Bing so good that I don't do a Google search from one month to the next. At this point, it'll be tough for Bing to erode Google's well established monopoly in Europe, but unless Microsoft makes Bing in other countries as good as it is here, they don't stand a chance.

Microsoft's Scroogled campaign hinted at this quite well with the regards to Google's Shopping results showing biased results. This is almost similar except worse since it's anti-competitive.

What we're trying to do is provide the most relevant results for users in a very competitive market, where if we don't continue to provide the best results for users, people will go and find their information somewhere else.

This. This is the most important thing. Google has a huge amount of data and their services are pretty good.

The example this guy mentions is a price comparison site. And there are VERY few good price comparison sites. Usually all I find is bad matches, sites full of ads, ... Google Products on the other hand is clean, correct and useful. Of course Google is going to place it higher if they notice the results are more popular with users.

If you want your site to be used most, you need to make your site the best there is. In the end you'll get the users. If your site is horrible it'll be ranked lower. It's as simple as that.

Smiffy said,
So it's okay for a monopoly in one (hugely influential) market to wipe out their competitors in other markets?

If those competitors lose by being inferior, yes.

There's a really good tech price tracker in The Netherlands and it always gets ranked as one of the first results on searches for products that are on there. Why? Because it's really good and really popular.

You can't complain about your site not being ranked high if it's simply a ######, unpopular site.

Ambroos said,

If those competitors lose by being inferior, yes.

And if they lose by being superior but wiped out of search results by a competitor with a poorer service who happen to have a monopoly of 90% in the search market?

Is that okay?


No. No it's not.

This reminds me of that bonkers claim that releasing an operating system for free is somehow anti-competitive.

Google's motto is 'don't be evil', but - rightly or wrongly - the company regularly finds itself accused of casting aside that mantra in the pursuit of furthering its own business interests.

Has not been there motto for a while now. Only people who use this are people who are bashing Google.

Anyway, Google is getting to big and things change...practices changes. Not always for the better. MS had to be put in check, Apple...all big companies do and if this is true, Google will be put in check as well. Just how business runs.

Smiffy said,

Apparently Google didn&#039

I particularly like item 6:

Turns out they can make more money by doing evil.

What company doesn't make money by shady practices. And I have not heard or seen a google rep make the don't be evil comment its a long time. Only people that do are people who are anti google

techbeck said,

What company doesn't make money by shady practices.

Nobody minds companies being all about profit. Not a problem. But don't *lie* about it and then set about explicitly and deliberately being evil.

(by the way, for the hard of thinking, manipulating search results to put competitors in non-search markets out of business is a reasonably good definition of corporate evil)

Do you really think that Google are going to draw attention to their hypocrisy by mentioning that motto in public? It's almost like they don't mention it because they know it's a lie! Amazing!

So ??

It's their search engine..

It's given free to users..

Its a private organization !!!

What do we expect ?? A store which sells Coke, will serve you a orange drink from Pepsi family, if asked for a orange drink ?? or a car dealer from a brand will show you a car from different segment of a rival brand when you ask for a different model ??

Why so surprised ??

others (Bing and such) should try to refine their product to that mark.. Its an open market, who ever does it best will lead !! Simple..

Remember that thing where Microsoft put their own browser as the default in their own product and a whole bunch of other browser makers (including Google) bitched and bitched and bitched until the EU forced Microsoft to put a *randomized* browser ballot on every copy Windows sold in the EU? 'Member that?

Smiffy said,
Remember that thing where Microsoft put their own browser as the default in their own product and a whole bunch of other browser makers (including Google) bitched and bitched and bitched until the EU forced Microsoft to put a *randomized* browser ballot on every copy Windows sold in the EU? 'Member that?

Oh and the Billions (Or millions?) of fine they paid. Add that too!

Choto Cheeta said,
So ??

It's their search engine..

It's given free to users..

Its a private organization !!!

What do we expect ?? A store which sells Coke, will serve you a orange drink from Pepsi family, if asked for a orange drink ?? or a car dealer from a brand will show you a car from different segment of a rival brand when you ask for a different model ??

Why so surprised ??

others (Bing and such) should try to refine their product to that mark.. Its an open market, who ever does it best will lead !! Simple..

Would you say the same things if the one called out was Microsoft or Apple?

Yes..

See, what amuses me is the fact that, in everything else, like OS, browser, processor, graphics card, printer, camera, phone, you have alternative, with which people can live with and work with happily but only in search engine, there is none ??

I mean what about starting a community project ?? If we hate Google and its monopoly so much, couldn't we start a community project, open source to develop a rival search engine ??

I am sure, there would not be any issue of funding..

Infact every other software giants are also unable to develop a good working alternative ???

A monopoly, no matter how loved, is dangerous. Oh well. Bing just can't compete.

Search Bing for "Android L Stability". Then search Google. Bing image search for "AMD summit arm vs x86 graph", then search Google. Google provides the best image result first.

I don't know. It saddens and worries me that no one can compete.

ObiWanToby said,
A monopoly, no matter how loved, is dangerous. Oh well. Bing just can't compete.

Search Bing for "Android L Stability". Then search Google. Bing image search for "AMD summit arm vs x86 graph", then search Google. Google provides the best image result first.

I don't know. It saddens and worries me that no one can compete.

While I agree Google is better than Bing at searches a lot of the differences can be cleared up on the searchers end. Google does better at switching stability to stable to find search results. But if you put in "Android L Stable" into Bing it finds much better results. And, even to a little degree, "Is Android L stable" has better results as well.

In the same way, if you put in "AMD summit arm vs x86" or even "AMD summit arm x86" you get better Bing results as well =).

The way people search has been dominated by Google for a while and I think we all got use to it. But we can get much better Bing results if we find out what Bing uses to search better. I look at it like this. Google Now and Siri have their ways of recognizing things. Cortana came on and has her way of recognizing things. If you want to set a reminder for any of them you have to find out how they collect data to form that reminder. One might be "Remind me to go to lunch with my parents at 12:15" and another might be "Remind me at 12:15 to go to lunch with my parents". Slightly different syntax. But still what someone would say in normal conversation. =)

I don't know. It saddens and worries me that no one can compete.

Well the more people that use it, the better it gets. Google has a hugeeeeeee amount of data that they can use to make their searches more relevant.

Bing, or any other search engine, has a much much smaller pool of users that they can research off.

---

Also your search term is incorrect. It's ARM AND x86, not vs. If you search amd summit arm and x86 graph on bing you'll get the exact same graph as the first result that you get on google.

-Razorfold said,

Well the more people that use it, the better it gets. Google has a hugeeeeeee amount of data that they can use to make their searches more relevant.

Bing, or any other search engine, has a much much smaller pool of users that they can research off.

---

Also your search term is incorrect. It's ARM AND x86, not vs. If you search amd summit arm and x86 graph on bing you'll get the exact same graph as the first result that you get on google.

LOL, his search term was incorrect? His search term was his search term, its up to the search engines to give him the correct result.

There's no such thing as an incorrect search term. The purpose of the search engine is to take human input (which may not have perfect syntax or meaning) and give useful results based on that. Google managed it in this instance and Bing didn't.

M4x1mus said,

LOL, his search term was incorrect? His search term was his search term, its up to the search engines to give him the correct result.

There's no such thing as an incorrect search term. The purpose of the search engine is to take human input (which may not have perfect syntax or meaning) and give useful results based on that. Google managed it in this instance and Bing didn't.


Except for the simple fact that Bing and google use different ways of searching.

Neither way is incorrect just that you, like most people, are very used to searching for things in the google way.

Google also does have better error correction and I already pointed that out by saying the more people use it the better it gets.