According to Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, “Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results and demoting those of competitors. What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation.”
Google’s shopping service
Google’s flagship product is the Google search engine, which provides search results to consumers, who pay for the service with their data. Almost 90% of Google’s revenues stem from adverts, such as those it shows consumers in response to a search query.
In 2004 Google entered the separate market for comparison shopping in Europe, with a product that was initially called “Froogle”, re-named “Google Product Search” in 2008 and since 2013 has been called “Google Shopping”. It allows consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types, including online shops of manufacturers, platforms (such as Amazon and eBay), and other re-sellers.
When Google entered comparison shopping markets with Froogle, there were already a number of established players. Contemporary evidence from Google shows that the company was aware that Froogle’s market performance was relatively poor (one internal document from 2006 stated “Froogle simply doesn’t work“).
Comparison shopping services rely to a large extent on traffic to be competitive. More traffic leads to more clicks and generates revenue. Furthermore, more traffic also attracts more retailers that want to list their products with a comparison shopping service. Given Google’s dominance in general internet search, its search engine is an important source of traffic for comparison shopping services.
Consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.
This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals.
Other Google cases being investigated concern:
1) the Android operating system, where the Commission is concerned that Google has stifled choice and innovation in a range of mobile apps and services by pursuing an overall strategy on mobile devices to protect and expand its dominant position in general internet search; and
2) AdSense, where the Commission is concerned that Google has reduced choice by preventing third-party websites from sourcing search ads from Google’s competitors.