Google sugarcoats Places antitrust claims

It looks as though Google is trying to sugar coat an FTC antitrust investigation on how it displays the search information of rival local business.

The company has decided to remove previews of customer reviews, which rivals such as TripAdvisor allege it stole from their sites and plonked on its “Places” service.

However, according to our source well versed in the ins and outs of antitrust laws, the company still has a long way to go – and won’t easily be able to “hookwink” the FTC into favouring it.

He also pointed out that the changes relating to the reviews are “minimal” in the whole antitrust case, which the FTC said it was officially looking into back in June.

Back then the FTC said it will open a formal enquiry, to look at claims that the company copied reviews as well as that it manipulated search results to direct users to its own sites and services.

The investigation came as the likes of Expedia and TripAdvisor grumbled that they had been missing out on traffic as Google directed users to its own service. Google also faced fire from shopping websites, which said that the company’s alternatives often showed up at the top of the results, no matter if there were better independent services out there.

And the companies also alleged Google had been stealing their content, including opening hours, locations and photos, posted details on its own pages.

Of course Google has denied the allegations, but according to the Wall Street Journal, it did make changes with its Google Places service – showing a drop in the number of reviews listed for some businesses. It said that  Keens Steakhouse in New York displayed 60 reviews on Friday, compared with more than 3,000 last month.

According to our source, the changes have come a little too late, and instead of helping, Google could add to its detriment.

“By taking down these results Google is, in a way, showing it has done wrong. It’s held its hands up and waved the flag. Its reasoning behind doing this is probably to show the FTC that it’s cooperating but investigators won’t be hoodwinked into thinking this, and it may make them question the rest of Google’s statements.

“The fact that it has done this is also minimal in the great scheme of things and the rest of the allegations. It’s going to be a very long road ahead for both Google and FTC investigators.”

Google’s director of product management, Avni Shah, wrote from a bog that: “Making constant tweaks and adjustments to [Google’s] user interfaces and overall user experience have always been the norm.”

As well as adding buttons that allowed users to quickly upload pictures and reviews, the company had taken into consideration what users wanted and decided to remove  “review snippets from other web sources.”

To back up its reasoning, Shah added: “Rating and review counts reflect only those that’ve been written by fellow Google users, and as part of our continued commitment to helping you find what you want on the web, we’re continuing to provide links to other review sites so you can get a comprehensive view of locations across the globe.”

The reasoning hasn’t appeased those complaining.

TripAdvisor told the WSJ that the company will continue to object against Google putting its Places pages above competitors, while Yelp added that Google had used the information provided by other sites to build up its Places service.  It looks like this case won’t be packed up quickly.