Is Google a monopoly? Thoughts on September 21, 2011 Senate Hearings.
The September 21, 2011 Google hearings were very interesting and brought a few things to light worth mentioning.
The first item is that the Senators representing the Judiciary Sub Committee had limited knowledge of how the search giant works, but they do have able staffs who helped prepare them for the hearings. Conservative Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah was a great example as he arrived at the hearings loaded with screenshots and analyses for various shopping keywords and questioned how Google owned shopping sites came up third on page one, in almost all cases. Not one other shopping site he listed in his presentation including Nextag, Price Grabber or Shopper had such a consistent track record of appearing third for a sampling of 650 keywords, and Sen Lee actually asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt if he “cooked it so you are always third”. The answer was obvious from Schmidt, “Senator, I can assure you we have not cooked anything”, but some real damage had been done to Google with the presentation. It was an admittedly eye opening example of how Google may be manipulating search for their own products. Senator Lee was by far the most critical of Google at these hearings.
Democratic Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken also conducted an interesting line of questions. What made them intriguing to me was that in his opening statement he said “I love Google” for the record, and proceeded to launch his own attack via questions about how Google had treated Yelp unfairly in the past and asked very specific anti Google questions of expert attorneys who were present. One such attorney was Susan A. Creighton, Partner Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, PC Washington, DC, a pro Googler, who shared her thoughts on why the company was not a monopoly by her definition and the other, Thomas O. Barnett, Partner Covington & Burling LLP Washington, DC was clearly in the opposite camp. He had in fact represented Trip Advisor in an effort to block Google’s purchase of ITA (a competitive flight search software company Google had recently purchased) and considered Google to clearly be a monopoly worthy of government intervention. The line of questioning by Franken elicited his support for Barnett’s opinion. His distaste for Ms. Creighton’s thoughts was evident in his words and reactions to her comments.
The entire hearing was fascinating but I chose to include only 2 videos, both about about Yelp, mainly because they are so intertwined in our industry (for better or worse). The hearings demonstrated an important challenge that Google will be facing after these hearings; the ability to scrape content without authorization under the guise of organic content delivery.
The first is Jeremy Stoppleman’s opening statement regarding the hearings and why he thinks it is important that Google be challenged by the government.
Listen to Stoppleman tell his side of the Google/Yelp saga in which he claims Google scraped Yelp’s content-unauthorized, and re purposed it on Places. Once Yelp spurned Google’s $550 million dollar offer to be purchased, it appears as though the relationship soured.
As mentioned, the hearings were very anti Google and for better or worse I think we are in for some more significant changes in organic search and Google Places because of them.
My own opinion (and I have been sharing it for the last year or more with all three people who listen :)) has been that Google Places is “Under Construction”…it is a very important piece of a reputation management strategy, but it is not the only one. There are 2 primary reasons for this as I see it:
1) Google Places has little to no direct support internally and those that do work on it apparently aren’t finished building it. How many changes have we seen occur in the last 12 months alone? How much more blind faith can we put there after what we have seen (even prior to a recent FTC investigation launch and the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on their practices)? Case in point, July 21, 2011, reviews that once rolled up to Places stopped rolling up and no longer counted in the number of stars showing on a business profile. The numerous dealers who relied on Dealer Rater to push their reviews to Places were left holding the bag. No fault of Dealer Rater who promoted this as a cornerstone of their product, but how do you think dealers and businesses felt who hung their hat on this strategy to build their star rating?
Dealer Rater trusted Google and the dealers trusted Dealer Rater. It wasn’t Dealer Rater’s fault this happened, but it did. So now dealers are focusing all of their attention on getting reviews to show on Places with a direct approach by getting reviews written in the dealership via a Google account. This is a better plan, but how many people remember, or are even aware that Google originally lost tens of thousands of reviews in Oct 2010? What if it happens again? Then what?
2) Google Places does not allow for syndication. Are we really counting on all of our customers ONLY seeing reviews on Google Places? What about Presto Reviews or Dealer Rater, Merchant Circle, or your own website, or a string of page one grabbing microsites you could build to showcase these great comments. If you aren’t doing business with a review company/platform that allows for near total syndication, then I would suggest moving them down the list of important vendors. This type of content is designed to be grown in a “hub and spoke” environment and showcased on the digital highway…until Google sees other wise I suppose.
The point here is that dealers and other businesses need to be aware that the review/reputation management landscape is constantly changing and that there are many “experts” promoting various agendas and “flavor of the days ideas”. Some are worth listening to while others offer sugar water for a quick boost of energy.
Take the time required to learn more about important strategies and companies who promote themselves in this space. Word of mouth marketing will continue to become more and more important as an entire generation of tech savvy children grow up and start consuming your products. How will they find you? And more importantly, what will their friends be saying about you?
Click here to see the entire Google Anti Trust hearing.