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Aggrieved businesses are lining up against Google

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer
A logo is pictured at Google's European Engineering Center in Zurich, Switzerland July 19, 2018. Picture taken July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Type “Abraham Lincoln birthday” into Google’s search bar, hit enter, and at the top of the page — above those blue links — is a box with the answer to your query:

Google has been answering queries faster and with fewer clicks by putting boxes above the search results. Three boxes appear if you search for Lincoln's birthday. (Yahoo Finance)

Providing these quick, easy answers to users has been part of Google’s (GOOGGOOGL) search strategy for quite a few years now. But critics say the company has habitually crossed lines in ways from lifting content to anticompetitive behavior.

Earlier this month lyrics site Genius accused Google of stealing content from its lyrics websites — and showed what appeared to be convincing proof in the Wall Street Journal. On its website, the company used different types of apostrophes to form a pattern in its lyrics that spelled out the word “red handed” in Morse code.

Genius says it has been telling Google since 2017 that copied texts were appearing on its website. Google says it hasn’t lifted anything, that everything there must have come from other lyrics sites.

For years, companies like Genius, Yelp, and Celebrity Net Worth have complained that Google has been lifting their content, specifically to replace the very services these companies provide. But as the Justice Department explores an antitrust probe against Google, companies are being more vocal with their criticism of the tech giant, especially when it comes to snippets.

“It’s hard to argue against Google’s right to put a form on the screen when you put in ‘2+2’,” Luther Lowe, SVP of Public Policy at Yelp and one of Google’s biggest critics over the years, told Yahoo Finance. “I would say 2+2 is a commodity piece of information, an immutable fact.”

In other words, Calculator.com may be a casualty of Google’s easy shortcut, but businesses like Genius and Yelp see the same thing happening, only this time it involves content unique to these websites.

“Google has long sent large amounts of traffic to third parties,” a company spokesperson told Yahoo Finance. “We strongly believe that by creating the best search experience for people around the world, we will overall be able to deliver more traffic to sites across the web.”

Creators: stop lifting our content

Companies like Genius must license song lyrics from music companies. Genius alleges, with its evidence, that Google is stealing its interpretations of songs (lyric transcription is slightly subjective with “oohs” and “aahs”) — and its business is suffering as a result, with fewer citations, links, and traffic back to the site.

Google’s response has been that it licenses the lyrics from a Canadian company called LyricFind, so it’s not the company’s fault. A company blog post explains how Google lyrics appear in search results — “we do not crawl or scrape websites to source these lyrics.”

Something similar happened with Celebrity Net Worth, but in a “more egregious way,” longtime Google observer and SEO expert Rand Fishkin observed in a recent tweet storm.

Google once asked the site for the data, and Celebrity Net Worth declined. But Google appeared to use the data anyway, putting them in the snippet above the search results. Like the Genius case, hidden clues gave the game away. A few fabricated celebs that were mixed in with the 25,000 real ones on the website surfaced through Google, proving to the CEO that Google had pillaged data from Celebrity Net Worth. “Traffic immediately crumbled,” its CEO told The Outline.

“Google refusing citations and rejecting copyright principles b/c they bought data from a third party [e.g. another lyrics site that scraped from Genius] vs. scraped it themselves [from Genius] has gotta make any web creator nervous,” tweeted Fishkin.

In the past, Yelp has spoken up many times to accuse Google of scraping content off its platform, often photos submitted by its users. In 2013 Yelp complained to the FTC that Google was unfairly using its content to improve its own local review products and promoting its own stuff. Google said it would stop, but in 2017 Yelp said Google was violating a settlement it made to end an FTC investigation.

Google says it allows companies to opt out of snippets that would prevent incidents like this. But the companies didn’t totally comply, according to Google.

“We give site owners tools to opt out of snippets or indexing altogether if they wish, and we respect those instructions when site owners implement them on their domains,” a spokesperson said. ”We’re always exploring new ways to engage with and ensure we’re supporting the ecosystem.”

Keeping people on Google

These seemingly minor spats over snippets and linkbacks belong in a greater context.

In a controversial interview that violated the company’s pre-IPO quiet period in 2004, Google co-founder Larry Page told Playboy Magazine that Google had no interest in becoming a walled-garden like AOL (or today’s Facebook), but that it was happy to send you to other sites. “In fact, that’s the point,” said Page.

Fifteen years later, it’s clear that Google has long abandoned this strategy, preferring to keep visitors in its own ecosystem if possible, answering queries quickly with a box, with or without citations of the original content. Google says its goal is to help people find information as quickly as possible.

In a recent blog post, Fishkin demonstrated the level of change in traffic from Google from 2004, by highlighting how the company’s search engine result pages give significant exclusive real estate to its own properties like YouTube and Google Maps, keeping users on its platform.

Google answers almost half of all queries immediately, without sending anyone to other sites. (SparkToro)

Today, in an environment where the search engine game is even more dominated by Google, only around 41% of users make it to non-Google sites, according to Jumpshot data collected by Fishkin. About half end up as zero-click searches (“Abraham Lincoln birthday”) and the rest either go to Google’s own sites or they are paid clicks to non-Google sites (Google gets paid).

Yelp’s Lowe argues that much of the innovative stuff on the internet was specifically born during the time of Web 2.0 — a term pegged to the rise of user-generated content — precisely because Google fostered it by passing 100% of its traffic through to new, innovative businesses and services.

“All the cool stuff was born in these conditions,” said Lowe. “It’s hard to decouple that with the rise of Google.”

For the smaller tech players, looking at today’s internet can seem hopeless. Though Google has tried and failed to take share of other online markets — Google Plus, for example, could not dethrone Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn — it often does very well, and often to its own users’ benefits.

“It’s a threat to innovation,” Lowe said, who said that stories like Genius’s are making venture capitalists think twice before investing in a new business. “There’s no incentive to create if you have a giant company bulldozing into markets,” he added.

At the same time, Google notes that snippets often do result in clicks, which can drive meaningful traffic. In other words, just because the percentage of traffic has gone down because searches are answered immediately, overall numbers Google passes off may have gone up.

Google’s advantage

Whether this all will have any effect on the antitrust investigation and outcome that the DOJ is looking into is still unclear, however.

Furthermore, from an optics perspective, explaining how this is “bad” or problematic is not easy. People appreciate Google because the company makes our lives easier when it gives us a straight answer when we ask basic questions like “When does the Super Bowl start?”

For cases like that, everyone would love to be saved a click — except publishers who try to play the game of trying to have their “What time is the Super Bowl” post appear at the top and boost their traffic.

In many cases, Google can scrape information and throw a link back, making everyone happy, like for movie listings. The local theater will be happy to provide this info to the searchers. But if the content that powers much of this machine is from sites that actually depend on visitors — specifically the Web 2.0 sites that only function because a small percentage of their visitors became the content creators and contributors — the model may fall apart. And if those businesses are squeezed out or never appear, it will be up to Google to either pick up the slack, which it may not be completely up to without the kind of investment that its competitors have shown. In that world, Google may provide lyrics like Genius, but not its library of song meanings and annotations, for instance.

For example, in local reviews where it competes against Yelp and Foursquare, Google has seen some success. But as Yahoo Finance has reported, Google de-indexes this content, perhaps to hide the fact that its own reviews are shoddy and would not score high enough on the company’s own search algorithm to make it into the first page of links.

But no matter. Google’s content has a new home: above the 10 blue links of the results page, in an easy-to-find box.

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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