The New York Times wants the government to start regulating Google’s search business.
To be fair, the Times admits that forcing Google to get approval every time it tweaks its search algorithm — as it does constantly — would be impractical and stifling.
But, that aside, the Times thinks “it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses.”
No, it really isn’t.
A few reasons why that is a terrible idea:
- Google doesn’t have a monopoly on search. It currently has two serious competitors in Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing, or perhaps one and a half, since Bing will be powering Yahoo searches from now on. Google’s search share is around 63%, well under the standard thresholds for antitrust concerns.
- More importantly, there is no barrier to switching search engines. Dozens of search engines are always a click away. (Google doesn’t even make the front page when you Google ‘search engine’.) As the Times points out, Google is the default within many browsers and on third-party sites, but that can change incredibly quickly too (see the iPhone). If Google also dominated the browser market (and forced users into Google search), there would perhaps be a case here. But Chrome’s market share is still tiny compared to IE and Firefox.
- Regulators wouldn’t be qualified to evaluate Google’s algorithm. Search is really hard.
- Google should be using search to help its other businesses, because search is free. It’s crazy that we even have to write this, but apparently a refresher is in order: Google’s search product is one of the biggest things going on the Internet, and, like most successful Internet products (but unlike the New York Times) it’s 100% free. That means Google has to come up with indirect means of making money off search. The most obvious is advertising, which has always been Google’s core business. But there’s no reason the company shouldn’t experiment with other options.
If Google thinks promoting its own products can help it make money, while maintaining a search product that people want to use, and that third-parties want to promote in their browsers, sites, and apps, that isn’t an antitrust problem, it’s a great business model.