Last year Google jumped into online ticket search when it bought flight data company ITA — a deal opposed by competitors like Orbitz and Kayak — and now The Wall Street Journal says the search giant is again under fire from travel competitors. In addition to Google's top-level placement of its interactive airfare chart in search results, the service cuts out middlemen by linking directly to airline websites. It's not the first time Google's been caught in a search imbroglio — Europe has scrutinized Google's behavior for years, and on December 19th US senators Herb Kohl and Mike Lee urged the FTC to investigate the search giant for antitrust violations.
WSJ says that competitors think Google hasn't honored its commitment to "build tools that drive more traffic to airline and online travel agency sites" — a concession that Google made to the Department of Justice in order to smooth over its acquisition of ITA. But as Google's Jeremy Wertheimer notes, the airlines would not give it travel data if it provided booking links to online travel agencies, presumably giving Google no choice in the matter. WSJ points out that Google's flight search has given a dramatic boost to airlines, which forked over $17.5 billion to travel agencies last year — according to Atmosphere Research, it costs airlines over $11 to process a booking made via a third party, compared to $1 for one made on their own websites. So in either case, Google's making an impact on a competitor's bottom line.
Google's in a precarious position: on the one hand, it's a dominant search provider that acts as a gateway between users and businesses, and on the other hand, it's a maker of other services, like travel search, that compete directly with businesses that show up in Google's search results. Unfortunately for Google, it's likely that this is only the beginning of a lengthy inquiry — the saga of Microsoft's antitrust case lasted nearly a decade, and since search is such a deep and systemic part of Google's core business, it's arguably in a much more complicated position.