Day 67 of the Google Search+ (Antitrust+) debacle. Today brings a few new entrants, notably Harvard professor and security expert Ben Edelman who argues (yet again) that Google is unfairly pumping their own products. Also joining the discussion is my CrunchFund partner Michael Arrington.
Michael and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on things (see: Android vs. iPhone — though note, for the record, that we’re now both happy iPhone users). But here I mainly agree with his premise that Google shoving Google+ into Search isn’t insane or evil, it was inevitable. Further, he cites Microsoft’s IE antitrust case as precedent for why these arguments now won’t really matter in the long run.
I agree. Google is going to face legal scrutiny over their actions, likely sooner rather than later. But at best, this will drag on for years and end with Google getting a slap on the wrist (though in Europe it may be more like a punch in the stomach). The end will still justify the means — Google will be better positioned to compete with Facebook as a result of their actions.
But that doesn’t make them right.
I’m not saying Google is evil because of what they’re doing. As I argued last night, “evil” is relative. Google is doing what is best for their company. Facebook and Twitter don’t like this, but they only don’t like it because what’s best for Google in this case is the inverse of what’s best for Facebook and Twitter.
What I don’t like about Google’s actions here is twofold.
First, if you believe Google has a monopoly on search (I believe they have a legitimate one — that shouldn’t be broken up), you can certainly argue that it’s unfair to shove Google+ profiles into the new Search+ drop-down and "People and Pages" area. It’s anti-competitive because Google could easily include Twitter and Facebook data in these areas. The data needed to do this is public, Google crawls it, it’s in their index. Google chooses not to include that data.
Which leads to my second point.
The way Google has handled the backlash against Search+ is a travesty. They’re simply not being honest. Google has made it seem like Twitter and Facebook won’t give them access to their data, so they can’t possibly include them in these features. But that’s both distorted and only half true.
As mentioned above, Google can and does crawl the public data that Twitter and Facebook make available. When it comes to profile links, Google has no excuse as to why they can’t show them. Their argument seems to be that they don’t want to point to that data without talking to the companies at first, but that’s an excuse, not actually an argument.
Further, Google could get access to Twitter’s data with the right deal in place. Everyone knows this because the two sides previously had a deal. Google makes it seem like Twitter won’t give up this data at all — the issue is the price.
Given that such a deal would destroy one key area of value for Twitter (data), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Google to have to pay for this data. You can argue about whether this barrier is enough of one to justify Google not including Twitter data in Search+ — but that’s how Google should frame it to the public. Not in the misleading tone that Twitter won’t give up the data for no reason.
With Facebook, things are decidedly more complicated.
In his post, Michael writes:
Will the government come along and knock some heads together in a few years? Maybe. But this is a much more nuanced situation that Microsoft’s execution of Netscape. That could take years and years, and the government may question Facebook’s willingness to throw data to their shareholder Microsoft while withholding it from Google (see John Battelle’s post for some color on that).
The last part of his argument is incorrect. John Battelle noted as much in his post, but only in a footnote after he published his piece:
I’ve heard from a source with knowledge of the Facebook/Google negotiations over integration of Facebook’s data into Google’s search index. This source – who while very credible does come from Facebook’s side of the debate – explained to me that during the 2009 negotiations, Google balked at Facebook’s request that Facebook data be protected in the same fashion as it is in Facebook’s deal with Bing.
Let me make this a bit more clear based on what I’ve heard: Facebook offered the exact same data deal to Google that they offered to Bing. Microsoft said yes. Google said no.
Battelle is right that Facebook had some requirements with regard to protecting the data. But they had the same requirements in giving the data to Bing. So this wasn’t about “Facebook’s willingness to throw data to their shareholder Microsoft while withholding it from Google”, any such argument made in court or elsewhere is invalid.
This information also once again calls into question Google’s overall stance that Facebook and Twitter won’t give Google access to their data. Both companies were willing to at various points, but Google would not agree to certain terms. Google has conveniently left this side out of every argument they’ve made so far.
And there’s more.
Prior to the launch of Google+, Facebook and Google were engaged in discussions to use Facebook data for presenting richer results on people searches. In other words, you’d search for a name and you’d see a result populated by Facebook data, including a picture of that person and what city they reside in, etc.
The two sides were so close to agreeing on this that Facebook even built a data feed specifically for Google to use, I’m told. But then, for reasons unknown at the time, Google abruptly pulled the plug on the idea.
Several months later… Google+.
So you’ll forgive me if I wince when Google frames this entire fiasco as the result of Facebook and Twitter being stingy with their data. That’s disingenuous at best.
Every step of the way, Google has been doing what’s best for Google. You can certainly argue that there’s nothing wrong with that (though the courts may disagree), but they’re simply not being honest about it. Google may not be evil, but they’re no saint either. Spin can only hide that for so long.