A number of Web sites including TripAdvisor, WebMD, Yelp, and Citysearch have charged that Google gives preferential treatment to its own content when providing results for users' online searches, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.
"Google does seem to be chasing us and I don't like it one bit," TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer told the Journal.
TripAdvisor has reportedly seen a 10 percent drop in the traffic it gets from Google's search engine--measured with seasonal adjustments--since mid-October, or around the time Google announced that it was changing the way it shows information about local businesses.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, meanwhile, said that Google "is trying to leverage its distribution power to take an inferior product and put it in front of the user," the Journal reported.
'Built for Users, Not Websites'
Google Product Search, Maps, Finance, Health, and Google Place pages are all among the search giant's controversial offerings in this respect, but its Place pages and Google Health results have proved to be particularly irksome to competitors.
Then there's the European Union's formal inquiry, launched last month following a complaint from shopping-search sites, into whether Google manipulates its search results for the benefit of its own content.
Google has said the complaints were made by firms with close ties to Microsoft, as the Journal noted, and it also maintains that its results decisions are made purely with users' interests in mind.
"We built Google for users, not Websites," wrote Google's Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president of product management, and Udi Manber, vice president of engineering, on the company's Public Policy blog recently. "Not every Website can come out on top, or even appear on the first page of our results, so there will almost always be Website owners who are unhappy about their rankings. The most important thing is that we satisfy our users."
'We Still Provide the Usual Results'
Similarly, "when someone searches for a place on Google, we still provide the usual Web results linking to great sites; we simply organize those results around places to make it much faster to find what you're looking for," noted Carter Maslan, director of product management, in a post today.
"For example, earlier this year we introduced Place Search to help people make more informed decisions about where to go," Maslan added. "Place pages organize results around a particular place to help users find great sources of photos, reviews and essential facts. This makes it much easier to see and compare places and find great sites with local information."
Microsoft's Bing operates similarly, as many have noted, in that it often refers traffic to its own content.
Still, given that Google's revenue depends largely on the ads that accompany its search results--and that it enjoys such a dominant position in the search arena--the question is clearly an important one.
At the heart of the general question is the concept of "search neutrality," as Search Engine Land blogger Greg Sterling pointed out in a post on Monday morning.
"Does Google have a right to offer its own content and products at all?" Sterling wrote. "Alternatively should Google's own products be in some fixed position on the page below other publishers? What are or should be Google's ‘obligations' to third party publishers? This is the central question."
'Google Nailed It'
At least some feel it has no such obligations.
"For these companies to hold their breath and kick their feet because Google has taken away their search lollipop is absurd," wrote Frank Reed on Marketing Pilgrim. "Google is not a government entity that is designed for handouts and 'fair' treatment. It's a business that has done something better than anyone else and as a result most people turn to them for answers."
Reed goes on to describe an example search for New York hotels.
"What Google gives me is hotels, just like I asked," he writes. "Then it shows me TripAdvisor after it lists specific hotels because the TripAdvisor site is not about a hotel but it's about many hotels and it requires more searching."
On a search for New York hotel reviews, on the other hand, "TripAdvisor has the number one position. Google nailed it," he explains.
Google is "not being a monopoly," in other words--it's "simply being better than every other competitor," Reed concluded. "In capitalism, that's what wins."
So, which is it? Should Google be required to display search results in a way that equally represents all competitors? Or should it be allowed to continue deciding which results best serve users--including, perhaps more often than not, its own?
I'm not sure what the answer is here, but I'm not inclined to favor the former option, which seems like it would degrade the quality of search results pretty quickly.
What do you think?
Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.