Genius Beta Used to Egg on Europe in Antitrust Fight With Google

Local business review firms see echoes of their own objects to Google in European Commission's product comparison objections

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 21: Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt (C) hears from Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond (R) while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee on Capitol Hill September 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. Schmidt faced questions from the subcommittee members about Google, the world's most successful Internet company, and whether it is using its market dominance to squeeze out competitors. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Google CEO Eric Schmidt consults with counsel at an antitrust hearing before the U.S. Senate in 2011. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Companies who object to how Google displays local search results are expressing their distaste right on the Google Europe Blog, on a post about the European Commissions antitrust concerns about how product comparison searches work on the dominant search engine.

To do it, a coalition calling itself “Focus On The User” is using Genius Beta, the system that makes it possible to annotate almost any text on the Internet, by simply adding “http://genius.it/” to the front of the URL. Here’s the original blog post, written by Kent Walker, the company’s general counsel. Here’s the blog post with annotations.

The coalition is made up of local search companies, such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and Jameda (a German physician recommendation site), and consumer organizations, such as Fight for the Future (which helped coordinate the net neutrality protests online in 2012, according to Wikipedia).

Interestingly, the annotations attempt to extend a disagreement about fair practices around one kind of search (product comparisons) into a related argument about another kind of search (local businesses); however, the issues raised in the annotations are under consideration inside the European Commission, according to the New York Times.

Using the Genius ‘annotate anywyere’ system, the coalition is able to specifically refute key points one by one, and directly relate objections to specific sentences, rather than disappearing in comment limbo, divorced from the original text. Broadly speaking, those points contend that Google search results favor data in its own Google Plus Local database rather than information on other sites, like the companies in the coalition.

Focus On The User makes a point (Image: Screenshot)

Focus On The User makes a point using Genius Beta. (Image: Screenshot)

We previously covered the New York City administration’s use of Genius Beta to refute points made in a New York Daily News story on sex offenders inside a homeless shelter.

Local business searches aren’t what European officials and the search giant disagree about right now, however. The annotated blog post was a summary of Google’s counterarguments to European Commission’s April Statement of Objection to Mountain View’s practices around product comparisons on the site. So, for example, if you searched for “Asics Running Shoe,” would the results first show you sites that specialize in helping you find the best deal on running shoes, or would it show you what Google has managed to find in its own Shopping vertical about those shoes?

These days, Google favors data it has managed to collect itself. In other words, it favors its own sites.

The European Commission argues that there are lots of sites that can help you find good deals on running shoes, so Google shouldn’t favor its own comparisons over those of other sites. Americans already had this conversation in the Senate in late 2011. When senators raised the same concerns, then-CEO Eric Schmidt argued that if Google already has the answer to a question in-house than it is better for the user to display that answer rather than users click more.

In his blog post, Mr. Walker writes that to do it any other way would be a “problematic remedy, requiring that Google show ads sourced and ranked by other companies within our advertising space.”

Take that argument or leave it, that’s not really what the Genius Beta annotations by the Focus on The User coalition are about. The coalition contends that Google is delivering a worse experience to users by favoring Google Plus Local results over information on coalition members’ sites. In one of the annotations, the coalition writes:

Google should focus on the users like the Google of old. Focus on the User demonstrates that Google can innovate beyond 10 blue links without harming users and competition.

The argument gets deep into the weeds of how Google works. Search results used to simply be a list of links, but the company is working to find better ways to display information for those searching. It is a fight around what are called “snack packs.” When you search for “mechanic Philadelphia” and you get that bullet list of mechanics, results once showed seven favored results. That recently shrank to three.

Either way, the coalition thinks it its pages should have an equal chance to Google Plus Local pages to end up in those snack packs. In fact, it claims, if you force Google to do that, using search operators, results from sites like ZocDoc beat Google Plus Local listings. The group demos it in this video:

Here is the Chrome extension discussed in the video, which is meant to show how local search results improve when Google doesn’t favor its own data.

According to Streetfight, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said on a February earnings call that the site had hit what he called “peak desktop,” but that mobile growth was strong. Then he added, ““But the age of [users] going to Google on your desktop and finding [their] way to Yelp—while it’s not over—we’ve sort of hit that peak.”

Focus On The User uses Genius to host annotations on its own site already.

Google did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

Genius Beta Used to Egg on Europe in Antitrust Fight With Google