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Google’s Personalised Search Could Lead To A Monopoly Hearing

Eric is a veteran British tech journalist, currently editing ChannelBiz for NetMediaEurope. With expertise in security, the channel, and Britain's startup culture, through his TechBritannia initiative

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Personalised Google+ search results could land the company in hot water with the US Federal Trade Commission and its competitors

Google’s latest move to push its social network “finds” up in its search engine results has brought strong criticism and the possibility of antitrust investigations.

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) said it is considering filing a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2010, the group successfully took Google to task over its Buzz service, a forerunner of Google+, which resulted in Google having to submit independent audits of its privacy practices periodically. Buzz was finally retired just before Christmas.

Searchable posts and pictures

Google’s plan is to create a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships. Last August, Google + posts were rendered searchable as part of the company’s Social Search initiative in Google Labs and this has resulted in the new search feature “Search plus Your World”.

Your World has three search elements: personal information in Google+ and the Picasa image-storage service, such as photos and posts owned by the searcher or those shared by contacts; profiles of people that the seeker may find useful to “follow” or contacts that may be real-world associates; and Google+ people profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest.

To see results from Google’s Your World search, users have to toggle between the normal search results and the personalised ones. These search engine results will have the effect of promoting Google+ over other networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

In a blog, EPIC wrote, “Users can opt out of seeing personalised search results, but cannot opt out of having their information found through Google search. Also, Google’s changes come at a time when the company is facing increased scrutiny over whether it distorts search results by giving preference to its own content. Recently, the [US] Senate held a hearing on Google’s use of its dominance in the search market to suppress competition, and EPIC urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s use of YouTube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content.”

Facebook, the overshadowing competitor of Google+, has yet to comment but Twitter sees the move as a threat, since it could well encourage people to share breaking news on Google+ rather than tweeting it. The company’s lawyer Alex Macgillivray, who was poached from Google in 2009, described Your World’s arrival as a “Bad day for the Internet. Having been there, I can imagine the dissension @Google to search being warped this way”.

Google fellow Amit Singhal begs to differ and, in his blog, he gushed, “Together, these features combine to create Search plus Your World. Search is simply better with your world in it, and we’re just getting started.”

Personal doubts

Macgillivray’s view is an echo of John Battelle’s Searchblog site: “The unwillingness of Facebook and Google to share a public commons when it comes to the intersection of search and social is corrosive to the connective tissue of our shared culture. But as with all things Internet, we’ll just identify the damage and route around it. It’s just too bad we have to do that, and in the long run, it’s bad for Facebook, bad for Google, and bad for all of us.”

Following Macgillvray’s tweet, Twitter released a formal statement, saying, “Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million tweets every day on virtually every topic. As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and tweets are often the most relevant results.

“We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organisations and Twitter users,” it continued.

Singhal’s final words on his blog read, “We named our company after the mathematical number googol as an aspiration toward indexing the countless answers on Webpages, but that’s only part of the picture. The other part is people, and that’s what Search plus Your World is all about.”