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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus

Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus

WASHINGTON - One of the more surprising conclusions drawn by the Federal Trade Commission when it dropped its nearly two-year antitrust investigation into Google last week was that Google, far from harming consumers, had actually helped them.

Jon Leibowitz, right, the Federal Trade Commission chairman, speaking last week after the decision was announced.

F.T.C. Hands Google Big Win Close Video See More Videos '

Amit Singhal of Google said search changes are researched.

But some critics of the inquiry now contend that the commission found no harm in Google's actions because it was looking at the wrong thing.

Instead of considering harm to people who come to Google to search for information, Google's competitors and their supporters say that the government should have been looking at whether Google's actions harmed its real customers - the companies that pay billions of dollars each year to advertise on Google's site.

In its reports, the F.T.C. did not detail how it defined harm or what quantitative measures it had used to determine that Google users were better off.

But interviews with people on all sides of the investigation - government officials, Google supporters, advocates for Microsoft and other competitors, and antitrust experts and economists - show that many of the yardsticks the commission used to measure its outcomes were remarkably similar to Google's own. Not surprisingly, they cast Google in a favorable light.

At issue were changes that Google made in recent years to its popular search page. Google makes frequent adjustments to the formulas that determine what results are generated when a user enters a search. Currently, it makes more than 500 changes a year, or more than one each day.

Users rarely notice the changes in the formulas, or algorithms, that generate search results, but businesses do. If a change in the formulas causes a business to rank lower in the order of results generated by a search, it is likely to miss potential customers.

What customers are now seeing reflects changes in the format of Google results. For certain categories of searches - travel information, shopping comparisons and financial data, for example - Google has begun presenting links to its own related services.

People close to the investigation said that Google had presented the F.T.C. with the results of tests with focus groups hired by an outside firm to review different versions of a Google search results page. After Google acquired ITA, a travel search business, in 2011, it began testing a new way to display flight results.

The company asked test users to compare side-by-side examples of a results page with just the familiar 10 blue links to specialty travel sites with a page that had at the top a box containing direct links to airlines and fares.

People who reviewed the Google data said tests with hundreds of people showed that fewer than one in five users preferred the page with links only. Users said they liked the box of flight results, so Google reasoned that making the change was better for the consumer.

“There is a deep science to search evaluation,” Amit Singhal, a senior vice president who oversees Google's search operation, said in an interview on Friday. “A lot of work goes into every change we make.”

But the changes were not better for companies or alternative travel sites that were pushed off the first page of results by Google's flight box and associated links. By pushing links to competing sites lower, Google might be making things easier for people who come to it for free search. But it also is having a negative effect on competitors, shutting off traffic for those sites.

Drawing fewer customers as a result of Google's free links, those competitors are forced to advertise more to draw traffic. And advertisers who aren't competitors have fewer places to go to reach consumers, meaning Google can use its market power to raise advertising prices.

“There might be no consumer harm if Google eliminates Yelp,” said one Microsoft advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the likelihood of further interactions with the F.T.C. “But advertisers certainly are harmed.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 7, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus.