EC Opens Antitrust Probe of Google’s Search Practices

The European Commission opened an investigation into Google on Tuesday. Europe’s top antitrust regulator is exploring allegations that the search giant abused its market-leading position in online search, violating European Union rules.

The EC said the formal investigation comes after competing search providers filed complaints about unfair treatment of their services in Google’s unpaid and sponsored search results. The complaints also allege that Google gives preferential treatment to its own services in search results. The EC was careful to say that it currently has no proof of any infringements, but is nevertheless making its investigation into the complaints a priority.

“The EC/EU is using the occasion of these complaints to express its deep frustration and dissatisfaction about what it sees as Google’s market power — and as a potential opportunity to rein the company in,” said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.

The Accusations

Google offers two types of results to people searching for information: Unpaid search results — also called natural or organic results — and sponsored results, which are paid third-party advertisements displayed at the top and the right-hand side of Google’s search results.

The EC is investigating whether Google has abused a dominant market position by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results for competing services such as price-comparison sites, effectively shutting out competitors.

The EC is also investigating allegations that Google lowered the quality score for sponsored links of competing vertical-search services. The quality score is one of the factors that determine the price advertisers pay Google.

The EC will probe allegations that Google imposes exclusivity obligations on advertising partners, preventing them from placing certain types of competing ads on their web sites, and on computer and software vendors, with the aim of shutting out competing search tools.

Finally, the EC will explore suspected restrictions on the portability of online advertising-campaign…

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