EU Asks Advertisers: Does Google Manipulate Its Search Results?

Hey, advertisers in the European Union. Does Google give you better organic results if you spend more in AdWords, or have they promised you higher rankings if you spend a little more? The European Commission (EC) wants to know all about it.

As part of its antitrust investigation, which is mainly due to complaints by businesses with ties to Microsoft, the EC has sent out a pair of questionnaires to advertisers and vertical search providers. Among the questions on the “confidential” questionnaire for advertisers, according to The New York Times:

  • Please explain whether and, if yes, to what extent your advertising spending with Google has ever had an influence on your ranking in Google’s natural search.
  • Has Google ever mentioned to you that increasing your advertising spending could improve your ranking in Google’s natural search?
  • Explain whether you’ve automatically opted in to the provision of other advertising services by Google (e.g. mobile search ads, etc.) (companies are also asked “whether you were aware of this when you entered into the agreement with Google” and “how you could have opted out”).
  • Did you ever refrain from advertising on other online advertising platforms because you considered the porting of advertising campaign data from Google’s AdWords to those platforms to be too expensive and/or too burdensome?

EC investigators have also asked for supporting documents, “whatever their form,” including e-mails, faxes, letters and “notes taken during telephone calls or meetings, etc.” according to the Times.

“The only reasons I know of to go in and change [search rankings] manually is for security, a court order or spam,” said Google’s Matt Cutts, who was in Washington, D.C., this week to speak against federal regulation of search results (which a recent survey found 77 percent of Americans oppose). “It is impossible to pay for a better ranking.”

Vertical search engines also got a separate questionnaire, featuring questions such as:

  • If Google introduced its competing vertical online search services after you introduced yours, please explain what was the impact on your business if any.
  • Is your company aware of the existence of the features in Google’s natural search-ranking algorithm which, in your view, might penalize the ranking or display of your vertical search Web site pages?

These questionnaires were sent out to major European and U.S.-based companies involved in publishing, Internet searching, advertising, and telecommunications sometime in December, and recipients were asked to return them by mid-February. The EC is seeking information dating as far back as 2003.

Antitrust complaints were originally filed by three companies — U.K. price comparison site Foundem (partly funded by Microsoft), French legal search engine, and Microsoft’s Ciao by Bing in February.

“People choose to go to Google,” Cutts said. “There is no barrier to entry, and with one click they can choose to go to another search engine.”

On a related note, Bloomberg reports that the U.S. Justice Department may be preparing an antitrust lawsuit to stop Google’s purchase of ITA Software, which is heavily opposed by, made up of sites including Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, TripAdvisor, and Microsoft, because it “threatens the competitive online travel search market, and could limit the competition and innovation that benefits consumers.”

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