Being the world’s favorite search engine has brought Google and its founders to positions of unimagined wealth, influence, and power. Every small tweak to the company’s search algorithms is pored over and studied by the millions of websites that depend on the traffic it drives their way. Not surprisingly, bigger entities in the web realm keep a stern eye on Google’s activities too, and their response has manifested itself over the past couple of years through the actions of a group called FairSearch.
Initially formed by travel search engines Kayak, Expedia, and TripAdvisor, then later joined by Microsoft, FairSearch describes itself as a coalition of businesses concerned with protecting consumers’ rights online. A choice of search provider underpinned by vibrant competition, a resolute commitment to transparency, and an unswerving desire for innovation are the three central pillars of FairSearch’s stated credo. Oh, and Google is the villain with the technicolor logo that’s on a mission to destroy it all.
If you have a quarrel with Google, FairSearch would love to hear from you
Beneath the sheen of do-gooder ideology, FairSearch can be most charitably described as a Google watchdog. It seeks to fan the flames of disapproval where they’ve started organically, originate them where they haven’t, and generally disseminate negativity toward the Google brand. Think of it as a PR firm working to destroy rather than create goodwill.
Every member company in FairSearch competes with Google in some fashion, and would enjoy an obvious advantage from seeing the leader’s wings clipped, but there’s another important benefit that the lobbying group confers upon its members: obscurity. Putting on its FairSearch hat, Microsoft can mount public assaults on Google’s practices and reputation without tarnishing its own name by being visibly involved in the spat. In the fight for hearts and minds, FairSearch helps to create the appearance of Google being in perpetual trouble with the law, whereas in reality what Google’s facing is a concerted attack from a cabal of its competitors.
FairSearch gives voice to Nokia and Microsoft's displeasure with Android's success
The latest development in this ongoing relationship comes courtesy of an EU complaint filed by FairSearch against Google. It ventures into new territory for FairSearch as its allegations relate to Android’s smartphone dominance and Google’s "predatory distribution" of the mobile operating system. This would be an oddity if you read the coalition’s web-centric mission statement, but fits neatly into the larger goal of tripping Google up at every opportunity. In fact, the current finger-pointing was presaged at the end of last year, when Nokia and Oracle joined FairSearch and Politico got ahold of a white paper outlining FairSearch’s attack on Google’s mobile efforts.
Now counting 17 web and technology companies among its supporters, FairSearch is an undoubtedly well-funded and resource-rich operation. The fact that it could afford to take six months to go from that white paper to its formal complaint with the European authorities illustrates the group’s staying power and diligence. But it's still unclear exactly what FairSearch wants out of all this lobbying — or how real the threats it warns against actually are.
While the collective voice decries Google’s supposed abuses of market power, the individual member companies soothe their investors by telling them they "haven’t seen any impact on our business." In September 2012, Kayak’s CEO told CNBC that Google’s hotel and flight search is "an inferior product" and something the company is monitoring but not worried about. So why all the hand-wringing from FairSearch about Google dominating search markets?
Google's overwhelming size and scale may be problematic, but is FairSearch the solution?
Google stands accused of unfairly exploiting its vast size and influence to the detriment of web and mobile users’ interests. The essential reason for FairSearch’s existence is to convince both the public and powerful regulators like the European Commission and the US Federal Trade Commission of Google’s guilt. With Google owning substantial shares of the smartphone, search, and advertising markets — don’t forget, the web’s second most popular search engine is YouTube, another Google property — there’s plenty of reason to be wary of the effects of a less benevolent Mountain View hegemony. And it's interesting to see how far the tables have turned for Microsoft, which was facing its own raft of international antitrust complaints not so long ago. Using the lessons from those battles to reign in Google makes a lot of competitive sense — we'll see if the US and EU can use them to make good policy.