Is Google A ‘Brand Killer’?

By June 9, 2012

Image: Toho

Google fired back Friday against charges that its search policies and market dominance make the company a “brand killer,” able to bury rivals by making subtle changes to the algorithm that ranks pages, and letting clients with fat wallets buy better rankings.

The latest accusation came in the form of an opinion piece by Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz that ran in the Wall Street Journal.

“Most people believe that when they type ‘convection microwave oven’ or ‘biking shorts into Google, they will receive a list of the most relevant sites,” Katz wrote. “Not true. That’s how Google used to work. Now, when someone searches for these items, the most prominent results are displayed because companies paid Google for that privilege.”

Katz apparently struck a chord with Google, which responded forcefully to the allegations.

“Our unpaid, natural search results are never influenced by payment,” wrote senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal, in a harshly-worded rebuttal. “Our algorithms rank results based only on what the most relevant answers are for users – which might be a direct answer or a competitor’s website. Our ads and commercial experiences are clearly labeled and distinct from the unpaid results.”

Google’s search algorithm, which is tweaked upward of 500 times a year, is built foremost to help users find what they’re looking for, Singhal said, with the implication that Katz, who heads a website, was airing sour grapes. Though Singhal didn’t directly address Google’s dominant market position, he did draw attention to the wide search options now available.

Nextag could be directly impacted by Google’s attempts to clean up Google Product Search, soon to be renamed Google Shopping.

The spat comes as Google faces an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into whether changes it has made to the way pages are ranked by its flagship search engine violate anti-trust laws. And abroad, the European Union has given Google an early July deadline to respond to concerns about monopolistic behavior.

To the search giant’s credit, it continues to push back against censorship in China, where speech on the internet is closely regulated and restrained.

Katz ended his column on a positive note, calling on Google to lead the business community toward a more open web by example.

“’Don’t be evil’ is, of course, a ludicrously broad mandate,” he wrote, referring to Google’s longtime unofficial mantra. “But by ending its monopolistic practices, Google can again take a step in that direction. More than any other company, government or regulatory body, Google has the ability to ensure that the Internet remains free, dynamic and open.”

Image: Toho