Editorial: FTC and Google -- why the right decision feels so wrong to so many people

Editorial FTC and Google  why the right decision feels so wrong to so many people

The Federal Trade Commission's absolution of Google after a lengthy investigation into alleged abuse of market power induced expected reactions from the principle players. Microsoft was infuriated. Google was triumphant and exuberantly overstated the FTC's exit. ("Google's services are good for users and good for competition.") Lawyers and lobbyists bunched on both sides of the fence to issue scathing or praiseful statements. The court of common opinion is now divided between nodding approval and eviscerating censure. The comment hate being hurled at Google is partly derived from general monopoly-busting sentiment, but there is also a stuck-in-the-past misunderstanding of what Google has become.

Google hit most people's radar in 1998 as a fast, pure, accurate search engine. The late '90s were years of dissolution for the search industry. Search champs like AltaVista and Excite had devolved into busy portals that resembled today's biggest content gateways (AOL, Yahoo, MSN). But with less owned content to promote, there was a lot of money on the page. The search functions of these and other behemoths became secondary to portal links. Furthermore, the search results were widely suspect -- charges of search corruption were rampant. Selling top search results, and failing to label the results as sponsored, were the common accusations.

Editorial FTC and Googlewhy the right decision feels so wrong to so many people

Google entered the scene with a gleaming four-part corrective: purity, accuracy, speed and single-mindedness. The algorithm was revolutionary to start: the results were spectacular along a thrillingly long tail, results appeared before you could blink and the home page was a minimalist marvel. (Still is.) If you didn't live online through those years you might not naturally imagine the love and admiration Google received across all online demographics. The internet nation fled the seamy districts of legacy search sites and flocked like portal sheep to the stark non-portal. Searching transformed from a necessary chore to an adventure of discovery.

The "Don't be evil" mantra, which informed the 2004 IPO, fit right into the product purity. The company had started diversifying by then. Google Labs was launched in 2002 and exhibited a startling range of possibility and ambition. News, Maps, the acquisition of and Gmail all happened before Google went public. Most importantly, in 2000, Google AdWords was launched, and as revenue grew it became clear that Google was fundamentally an ad company, and that search was just the content vehicle that drew in traffic.

The search-as-content piece contradicts Google's original mission purity, and confounds those who believe that "Don't be evil" means, in Google's case, "Don't do anything but search." Google provides a multitude of services that compete for traffic with branches of Microsoft, Yahoo and other immensely diversified media companies -- and of course Facebook. Google graduated from pure search 12 years ago.

The key to aligning with the FTC's release of Google from the crosshairs is this: Even as a pure search technology outfit, Google was a content company making content judgments. An algorithm is an editorial curator with artificial intelligence. It is built and tweaked by humans who apply content discernment and quality standards to its equation. The search result page (called the SERP by SEO experts) is an editorial product, and Google's site is ... well, it's a portal.

In the end, Google's revolution was not that it abolished content portals or even refuted them except in presentation style. The cleverness of Google has been to stash its portalness (portality?) behind the home page, on the SERP. And in that protected haven it has built out a suite of content promotions far more extensive than the rudimentary headline and horoscope funhouses of the so-called portal era.

Editorial FTC and Googlewhy the right decision feels so wrong to so many people

Search for a stock symbol in Google and you get an immersive widget powered by Google Finance; a link to Yahoo Finance is below it as the first organic result. Search for "airfares to Los Angeles" and you'll probably get another interactive experience above TripAdvisor and Expedia. These in-house results don't only win by position; they obviate other listings by drawing you into multiple clicks that might give you the answers you're searching for without leaving the Google domain. That is extraordinary behavior for a global company worth a quarter-trillion dollars whose traditional value lies in linking users to external sites -- in other words, getting you out of the domain ASAP.

As the FTC judgment pointed out in its somewhat defensive explanations, American antitrust law is designed to protect competition, not competitors. Google's point that competing search portals are a click away is indisputable. Google owns tremendous share, but it doesn't abuse its power coercively, as Microsoft was found to have done during its 1990s antitrust imbroglio.

Google is an imperious dictator in ways that weren't under the FTC's examination. Small businesses have been crushed by algorithm thrash, when they abruptly dropped out of view on the SERP due to a ranking change. Those are untargeted consequences, but Google can be willful and I have witnessed intentional dictator behavior. In one case, a major content brand was notified that its PageRank had been dropped because of a nearly immeasurable, statistically insignificant, certainly inadvertent error on a few pages. To argue that the site experience was damaged, or that the anomaly represented a changed site policy, was preposterous. Product and SEO teams scrambled to implement a fix, get it approved by Google's arbiters and regain the brand's Google status. The groveling was sad to see, but necessary.

In the realm of anti-competitive behavior, the focus of the FTC investigation, Google is little different from, and in fundamental strategy. The portal business is far from dead. Each of those three legacy gateways does huge traffic. Like them, Google develops content, sells ads, promotes its sub-brands and attempts to drive engagement within the domain. If there is any balm for Google's haters, it is the recognition that Google plays the same game as the portals -- just a little differently, and much better.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He authored "World Wide Web Searching For Dummies" before Google existed, and later wrote three books about Google, which are now antiques.