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Google is under attack, Search Engine Land to the rescue

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a piece of investigative journalism [paywall] about the US’s Federal Trade Commission’s case against Google, which petered out with barely a sizzle in 2013. That’s what being the largest corporate lobbyist in Washington DC gets you.

According to a leaked document, many people inside the FTC found Google to be engaging in fierce anticompetitive behaviour, and wanted to pursue the case further. Some examples of Google’s nefarious activities uncovered by the Wall Street Journal include blacklisting of competing websites, favouring of its own properties (well, duh), and illegally restrictive contract policies.

The image below, from WSJ’s Twitter, illustrates some key elements where FTC staff found Google in breach of the law, but where the eventual settlement with Google failed to act decisively:

WSJ on FTC and Google

Now that it’s revealed the FTC’s case against Google probably should have gone much further and the search engine was let off very lightly indeed, there is a strong case to be made for more far-reaching litigation against Google in Europe.

But Google needn’t worry, because the waters are already being muddled by Google’s own propaganda machine, primarily in the form of its biggest cheerleading blog Search Engine Land and its sister blog Marketing Land.

Greg Sterling’s initial piece on Search Engine Land starts casting doubt on the importance of the leaked FTC document straight in its subheader:

Search Engine Land headline on FTC document

The rest of the piece is fairly toothless, happily emphasising that the FTC refused to litigate against Google and instead settled the case. Unsurprisingly there’s no mentioning of the manifold objections against that settlement from various different parties, nor of Google’s abundant lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital.

But Greg does make a point of quoting Google’s chief counsel, once again iterating the FTC decided not to pursue.

Apparently thinking that Greg’s initial piece wasn’t pro-Google enough, Danny Sullivan then publishes a more in-depth piece on Marketing Land. The main headline starts encouragingly:

Marketing Land headline on the Wall Street Journal's article

But quickly Danny takes on his favourite role of Google defender and starts casting doubt on almost every aspect of the Wall Street Journal’s piece and the FTC document.

In the process Danny tellingly reveals that he does not understand how antitrust investigations work, as he repeatedly says that what Google did was also being done by other search engines. Anyone with even a casual understanding of antitrust law will realise that this is entirely irrelevant: the rules change when you become a monopoly, which Google definitely is – even Eric Schmidt has had to admit that.

What makes for acceptable (if immoral) competitive behaviour in a more egalitarian marketplace, becomes illegal under antitrust law when you’re a monopoly. In all fairness, Danny probably understands this but still feels it important to point out that “Google wasn’t doing anything that rivals weren’t also doing”, thus casting unwarranted doubt on the FTC staff’s conclusions.

Danny then goes on to link to and quote liberally from earlier posts he wrote about Google, all with his favoured pro-Google slant of course, and then adds several post-scripts to further clarify Google’s defense and make abundantly clear that no, really, the WSJ piece’s most damning evidence was just part of a ‘test’.

He concludes by liberally paraphrasing Google’s hastily penned PR spin. I have no doubt that when Google’s more polished official press release on this matter is released, probably in the course of today, Marketing Land and/or Search Engine Land will publish it almost entirely and make a big fuss of how it disproves the accusations made in the WSJ article and FTC document.

Fortunately Search Engine Land and Marketing Land are just enthusiasts’ blogs rather than proper news organisations, so we can hope that few policymakers will actually read their distorted propaganda. But the SEO industry will lap it all up, as they’ve always done, which can help set the tone for future debates on this issue.

I’d advise everyone not to rely on a single blog or news site to inform your opinions. Read multiple viewpoints from different trustworthy sources and make up your own damn mind.

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