Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...

The FTC seal. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

After two years of legal scrutiny a verdict has been reached in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of Google’s search practices. While the Internet giant will have to make some small changes, the big news is that Google was exonerated on the subject of anticompetitive bias in its search results. As you may imagine, people are not thrilled over at Microsoft.

The Guardian reports:

Announcing the FTC’s conclusions, Jon Liebowitz, FTC’s director, said: ‘We exhaustively investigated whether [Google] uses search bias’ to push its own products higher and rivals’ down the search results. But after nearly two years, he said, ‘the commission has voted to close this investigation. Although some evidence suggested it was trying to remove competition, the primary reason was to improve the user experience.’

According to the legally binding agreement, Google will be implementing the following changes:

  • It will stop “scraping” content from other sites and presenting it as its own in search results.
  • It will allow sites and businesses to opt out of being featured in its “vertical” search results such as Google Local and Google Shopping without adversely affecting their ranking in general search results.

These are laudable actions, but a far cry from what the critics were hoping for. Of course, Google still faces more uncomfortable conversations with the European Commission’s (EC) antitrust body over similar issues.

In November of 2010, the EC began investigating Google for these same practices and things have been moving at the speed of bureaucracy ever since. If Google loses, it will have a far greater impact than if the FTC had been harsher since Google has a much larger share of the overall search market across the EU.

David Heiner, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft, has been quite vocal on the subject throughout the hearings, so it is no surprise that he expressed his displeasure in a blog post immediately after the decision:

The FTC took steps today to address some of Google’s improper business practices. We find it troubling that the agency did not adhere to its own standard procedures that call for the agency to obtain industry input on proposed relief and secure it through an enforceable consent decree. The FTC’s overall resolution of this matter is weak and — frankly — unusual. We are concerned that the FTC may not have obtained adequate relief even on the few subjects that Google has agreed to address.

No matter where you stand on the subject, it would seem that there is a new playing field in place for 2013. It will be fascinating to see how things go as Google continues to evolve and integrate its services. It will also be worth keeping an eye on the case in the EU, especially since things don’t sound so good for the big G over there.

How do you think this will affect the digital landscape in the coming year?

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