Google Search Results 'Fixed', Faces $6.6B Fine

John Lister's picture

The European Union has formally accused Google of breaching competition rules by favoring its own sites in search rankings. It's a big step towards a potential $6.6 billion fine.

The case involves specialist websites that let users compare prices and availability for retail products or travel deals. The EU claims that Google is effectively rigging the search results because it owns many of the sites in the list, and therefore places them higher in the search results ranking. It says that the favored sites are listed higher than they 'deserve', rather than listing the sites based on other purely objective criteria that Google uses.

Latest Step in Lengthy Search Result Rigging 'Battle'

The dispute dates back to formal complaints lodged in 2009 that led to the EU launching an investigation in 2010. That investigation is ongoing, even though the EU and Google have agreed a settlement in principle three times. On each occasion Google's rivals protested it was getting off too lightly. In fact, they argued so strongly that the EU decided not to sign off on the agreement.

It's been an ongoing game of bluff, with both sides weighing up the pros and cons of letting the case go further. The EU could impose a penalty as high as 10 percent of Google's annual revenues, though that would almost certainly lead to a high-stakes court challenge by Google.

That's now a step closer as the EU has sent Google a Statement of Objections. That's the first document that officially says the EU believes Google broke competition rules. (Source:

Google To Defend Against Claims

Google now has 10 weeks to respond in writing or request an oral hearing. The EU will then look at Google's response before making a final decision about imposing any penalty.

Google says it plans to make a "very strong case" against the Statement of Objections. It says there's no evidence its actions and policies harmed consumers, and instead argues that the market for specialist search tools such as for shopping has boomed in recent years. (Source:

The EU has dropped further action over three claims against Google, namely that it "scraped" the text reviews from other sites; banned sites that displayed Google ads from also displaying ads from other networks; and that it stopped AdWords customers moving their data to other services. Google has already agreed to make changes in those areas.

Accusations Not the First, and Won't be The Last

This is not the first time Google has been accused of fixing search results, and most likely won't be the last.

In January 2012, Twitter accused Google of fixing its search results to boost to its own social networking service, Google+. In May of 2012, Google admitted its search results are biased and qualify as free speech, and thus should be protected under the first US Amendment.

It's worth noting that in 2004, the corporate motto of Google was "Don't be evil" and is in reference to avoiding conflicts of interest similar to examples listed in this article. During that time and prior Google's initial public offering (IPO), cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin explained that their "Don't be evil culture prohibited conflicts of interest, and required objectivity and an absence of bias." (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Should Google have the right to put its own sites higher up in search results lists, even if it can't justify doing so on grounds of quality and relevance? Does Google have an extra responsibility to be 'fair' in ranking sites given that it is so dominant in the search market? Or is this a free market issue where Google should be allowed to rank sites however it likes and let users decide whether the results are still useful?

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Dennis Faas's picture

It's hard not to be seen as evil when Google's founding letter states it will "prohibit conflicts of interest," yet also admits its results are biased, and is raking in insane amounts of money because of that bias.

georgegrimes's picture

Yet the other merchants who are insisting that their products should be listed higher than Google's are unlikely to be unbiased either. Everyone believes their product is better. How would the rankings be done by a truly impartial third party? We'll probably never know. The decision here really comes down to whose bias to prefer.
I'm not saying that Google is guilt-free. I'm saying that it's almost impossible to find a genuinely fair, unbiased solution to this.