A Google server room, via Data Center Knowledge
A nearly two-year investigation by the FTC into Google's search practices ended yesterday, with the behemoth (is that even a big enough word?) coming out unscathed. While competitors alleged that Google unfairly favors its own products in its search, the FTC ruled that Google violated exactly zero antitrust or anticompetition laws.
Google agreed to make some minor changes to the way its own products show up in its search, but the FTC dropped the case without charges. The rationale was simple, as FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz noted: FTC rules are designed to protect competition, not competitors. Or, in blunt words, the fact that Google has crappy competitors doesn't make its own success is a legal liability.
That's a particularly controversial ruling, and the most vocal opponent is Microsoft, who's spent gobs of money on Bing without breaking Google's stranglehold on the web. Microsoft surely has a right to be bitter, as Google managed to avoid a lengthy, costly antitrust battle, something Microsoft dealt with in the 1990s. Microsoft got in hot water because it tied Internet Explorer to Windows–integration, right?–which it has argued is no different than Google tying in YouTube and everything else to its own search.
At root was the question of whether Google hyping was its own products over those of others in its search results, and if so, whether that is unlawfully detrimental to competition. It's fairly obvious that Google, which has its tentacles in everything, tries to keep users within its own ecosystem as much as possible–partly because it's good business, and partly because a more seamless experience keeps -customers- users coming back. (For a good comparison between Google and Microsoft, and an explainer on how Google ties its products into search, check out this piece by James Stewart.)
You can argue whether Google's search is the best or not, but the firm's 70 percent market share for search doesn't lie. The company really has convinced users that it does search better than anyone else, and part of that is due to how quality the experience–with maps, video, and review integration at the forefront–actually is.
The FTC ruling suggests that Google was particularly savvy in interpreting antitrust laws and pushing them to their limit. The obvious question now is that with Google's dominance unchecked, can the company take over even more of the web?
There's no question that Google, its myriad side projects aside, will continue to innovate its search system as best its can, as it still remains its golden goose. And a piece by Gregory Ferenstein at the Washington Post raises a great point: Google could get to the point where its search is so good that competitors are legitimately obsolete.
The key point is the concept of a perfect search result. Ferenstein quotes Eric Schmidt, who said in a 2005 interview, "When you use Google, do you get more than one answer? Of course you do. Well, that’s a bug. We should be able to give you the right answer just once. We should know what you meant. You should look for information. We should get it exactly right.”
Google knows that the next step to adding more clarity in searches is being able to read users' intent. That's why the company is so invested in hoarding user data across their ecosystem to personalize search. It's also why the company purchased Zagat, following its heavy development in mapping software: Now a single search for a restaurant or shoe store automatically delivers reviews and directions, and those results transfer seamlessly from your laptop to your phone.
But there's only so much seamless features integration Google can add. The next hurdle is getting its search algorithm to understand human language.
That's a big reason Google hired Ray Kurzweil to head its engineering department. Few people understand machine intelligence better, and Kurzweil's goal of developing legitimate AI dovetails nicely with Google, which knows its limiting factor is that computers can't yet think like humans. As crazy as it sounds, that Google's vision of the future: When you search for something, its systems will be able to find exactly what you want, because they'll be better at understand your own language, your history, and your preferences.
Right now, search competitors still exist because searching the internet is still a relatively crude task, and people don't expect perfection. It's really hard for the average person to quantify whether or not one engine's results are "better" than another. As such, being to optimize the experience–through better features, better advertising, or simply being the default search of a browser–still makes it relatively easy to win customers.
Yet Google still has the most advanced search, and it's still the leader in developing truly intelligent search systems. If and when Google's self-aware e-butler gets turned on, all other competitors will immediately be obsolete. Expect another FTC investigation if that happens, but with this case standing as precedent, Google's strangehold on the web doesn't necessarily mean it's being anticompetitive.