Is Google plus Your World Having Antitrust Issues, Or Just Regular Trust Issues?

By Devon Glenn 

Google’s new personalized search engine, Google plus Your World, is under fire as critics say the company is using its dominance in the search engine market to squash social media competitors like Facebook and Twitter.  Unconvinced, I asked Eric Goldman,  Associate Professor of Law at Santa Clara University Law School if he thought that Google was heading for an antitrust lawsuit.

“I have been consistently skeptical about the antitrust gripes about Google,” Goldman told Social Times via email. “Despite the dogged efforts of a long list of adversaries, no one has yet surfaced any ‘smoking gun’ evidence that Google has acted impermissibly under antitrust law. Instead, most antitrust gripes about Google sound like sour grapes or, worse, efforts to misuse antitrust law to increase the complainer’s profits at the expense of the public interest.”

What the Critics Say

The “sour grapes” came most audibly from Twitter, which publicly criticized Google plus Your World, saying, “For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet…We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.”

Goldman is skeptical about Twitter’s complaints.  “…when other online intermediaries raise antitrust complaints that Google should be giving them more free traffic, I start to question the motives of the complainers,” he said. 

But the user experience is a valid concern.  “If we lose faith that Google’s integration of Google+ was in the searchers’ best interest, our imaginations can run wild with speculation about other reasons why Google made the choices it made,” said Goldman. “I believe this is what’s happening in the court of popular opinion.”

Changes to the User Experience

Goldman himself has tried the service, and is not impressed.  “In my limited experience with Google Plus Your World so far, I haven’t yet seen a single search results page where the prominent display of Google+ results actually improved the relevancy of my results,” he said.  “If anything, I have had some search results page where it was clearly harder for me to find the most relevant results. ”

Other early testers of the feature confirm his opinion.  This blog post by Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land shows screen captures of what the Google plus Your World search results actually look like.  Among the images are the search results for “music,” which populated a list of recommended People and Pages from Google+ on the right-side navigation where the sponsored ads usually are.

I tried it myself with a simple search for my own name.  At the top of the search results were pictures from my Picasa album.  Below those were pictures of the drummer Devon Glenn of Buckcherry fame, who usually shares the first page with me anyway.  Below all the pictures were links to my bio on Social Times, my LinkedIn account, my Facebook page and other profiles.  If I clicked the “hide personal results” button, the images went away.  Everything else stayed the same.

But then I tried googling videos that I knew my friends had posted on Facebook today, like the “Sh*t Brides Say” video and the “Sh*t Choristers Say” video. (My friends really like that sh*t.) Both videos came up in the regular search results, with no mention of my friends having posted them on Facebook. I was suspicious, so I searched for another meme my friend had posted on Google+.  That one didn’t come up, either.

Finally, I searched for mediabistro. The personal results included plenty of tweets from my co-workers. Even in my unscientific study, the results were inconclusive.

The Legal Ramifications

“From a legal standpoint,” said Goldman, “I don’t think Google Plus Your World adds very much to the antitrust complaints against Google…It’s just another example where Google is cross-promoting its services, which is not inherently wrong and often can improve the consumer experience.”

“However,” Goldman added, “if Google can’t prove to us that each of its specific choices to integrate Google+ are in our best interests given the widespread speculation that they weren’t, Google creates a major wedge in the trust relationship with users – and invites judges and regulators to impute bad motives to Google if they want.”

Image by AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA via Shutterstock