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Google now tying website speed to search ranking -- Why is that anti-competitive?

Google announced 4-9-10 that "we've decided to take speed into account in our search rankings" in a Google blog post by Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts entitled: "Using site speed in web search ranking." (Thanks to the Register's Cade Metz for flagging this issue.)

  • This post will explain how Google's tying of website-loading-speed to search-result-ranking is a major form of anti-competitive tying behavior that broadly leverages Google's search advertising monopoly market power against its primary:
    • Display advertising competitors: Yahoo and Microsoft; 
    • Cloud computing competitors: Amazon and Microsoft;
    • Online video competitors: Hulu, Vimeo, Veoh, etc.; and 
    • Other content competitors: Yahoo, MapQuest, eBay, Amazon, Foundem, etc.
  • This post will also show how this new anti-competitive tying behavior is "relevant" to Google-AdMob, the Google Book Settlement, and the EU's preliminary antitrust investigation of Google.   

Interestingly, Google claims the reason it is skewing its search algorithm to include "signals" other than search "relevance," is to benefit "all Internet users" with a faster web experience. However, in November Matt Cutts said that the real reason was different, that:

  •  "...there is strong lobbying in Google to introduce a new ranking factor into the algorithm. The new ranking factor has to do with how fast a site or page loads. ... He explained that Google’s co-founders want searching to be real fast, as if you are flipping through a magazine. Part of this is making sure faster web pages rank better than slower ones."
  • In Google's corporate philosophy statement section on: "you can make money without doing evil," Google promised: "... no one can buy better PageRank."
    • It is a fact that redesigning a website to make it load faster does cost website owners money, time and other resources.  
    • So in effect, Google is in fact now requiring sites "to buy a better PageRank."
  • Moreover, now that the dominant Google search engine business has decided to no longer rank search results neutrally, it reminds us of Google Sr. VP Jonathan Rosenberg's ominous warning to everyone in his 2009 blog post
    • "We won't (and shouldn't) try to stop the faceless scribes of drivel, but we can move them to the back row of the arena."
  • The new result, for websites that want to be found on Google's dominant search engine, is that they must now pay to keep a front-row seat, so that Google's new site speed signals do not unilaterally and automatically relegate their sites to a discriminatory "back row" seat on the Internet.
    • Ironically, this Google-created situation is a lot like what Google has long said it is against for the Internet, i.e. Google's long time admonition against having discriminatory fast and slow lanes on the Internet. 

So why is this tying anti-competitive?

First, and very simply, Google is leveraging its monopoly market power over search advertising to increase costs for, and punish, publishers that heavily use Google competitors' display advertising to help monetize their content. 

  • "...leveraging its monopoly power..." U.S. antitrust authorities believe Google has market power and have warned Google they will watch them closely for anti-competitive conduct. 
    • In blocking the Google-Yahoo ad Agreement, the DOJ concluded Google had "more than 70% share" and that Yahoo was "by far Google's most significant competitor."
    • In approving the Google-DoubleClick acquisition 4-1, the FTC pledged:  "We want to be clear, however, that we will closely watch these markets and, should Google engage in unlawful tying or other anticompetitive conduct, the Commission intends to act quickly."
  • "...increase costs and punish publishers that heavily use Google competitors' display advertising..."   At core, Google is using its monopoly power to force others to do it Google's way -- or else not be found on the Internet. Websites have no practical alternative other than to obey Google's new speed dictate. The implicit assumption here is that it is more important for Internet publishers to optimize their sites for the benefit, convenience, and leverage of Google than it is to preserve a competitive environment where website publishers are free to compete for users' interest based on innovation, differentiation, and a rich/stimulating visual experience. 
    • The anti-competitive effect of Google discriminating in its dominant search engine in favor of fast-loading text search ads over much slower photo/video display ads is that ~97% of Google's online advertising revenues come from fast-loading search advertising, whereas, Google's only two significant competitors in online advertising overall, Yahoo and Microsoft, are much stronger in slow-loading display advertising than search advertising.
      • By threatening or actually punishing websites that rely relatively more on display advertising, Google is abusing its monopoly power to substantially lessen competition from its only viable competitors.
    • As the Register pointed out, a commenter said in response to Google's announcement:  "I do not think that this is a solid idea. What about sites that post lots of photos on their pages or use complex services that take longer to load? What about all the sites that use advertisement? They obviously load slower than a plain HTML site."
    • It is important to understand that the advertising purpose of display advertising is to build brand awareness and to have users linger and spend time on their site. That's the business purpose of these types of sites!
    • By Google unilaterally dictating that all sites need to be fast and move people elsewhere fast like Google does, Google undermines display advertising's value in building more awareness of brands online.
      • (This is not the first time Google has seriously undermined advertisers branding online. Precursorblog has long spotlighted that Google's Chrome browser disintermediates brand advertisers by always diverting users that type in a brand address like into Google's Omnibox (that combines the search and address bars into one bar). Omnibox  diverts the user from the address location they typed in and want to visit -- to Google's advertisement landing page first. This has the perverse business effect of Google skimming advertising revenues off of branded sites that do not need a search engine to find their branded site.)

Second, ranking on speed is anti-competitive because it creates a slippery slope dynamic to disadvantage Google's cloud computing competitors more and more over time.

  • If Google can unilaterally mandate faster-loading websites, to make it more convenient for Google's search bots and Google's increasingly ubiquitous tool bars, what would stop Google from also requiring websites to:
    •   Comply with Google's announced desire to re-engineer the Internet DNS system to make it faster?
    • Host their websites physically ever-nearer to Google's fiber or data centers? and/or
    • Use Google's cloud services and data centers to actually host their websites?

Third, ranking websites on speed is anti-competitive because it creates a competitive disadvantage for slower loading video-laden websites that compete directly with Google's increasingly dominant video distribution site, YouTube.

  • Comscore ranks YouTube as the second largest generator of search in the world, with effectively 13 times more online video downloads than its nearest competitor, Hulu.
  • YouTube will always load-faster than its competition because Youtube is hosted inside Google's data centers.
  • Tautologically, video websites could never hope to rank above YouTube because Google hosts YouTube and not them. And if they were to somehow decide to have Google host their website in order to gain higher search ranking by Google, they would be forfeiting all their competitively sensitive infomation to Google as Google would be able to monitor, track and analyze all their traffic.  

Finally, ranking search results on speed is anti-competitive in that it is not neutral like Google represents it to be; it is a clever way of inherently favoring Google-owned content over non-Google-owned content. 

  • Foundem, a competitor to Google that has sued Google in the EU for antitrust violations, laid out, in an FCC filing, how Google anti-competitively discriminates against competitors in favor of its own content, like Google Maps and Google Product Search.
    • Foundem's quantitative analysis proving this anti-competitive discrimination is compelling.        

In sum, Google's unabashed tying of speed to ranking search results, when speed has nothing to do with content relevance, shows Google is able and willing to leverage its monopoly market power creatively into competitive markets for competitive advantage. 

  • This current and serious anti-competitive tying behavior is likely to only fortify the resolve of the:
    • FTC to ensure that Google does not leverage its PC search advertising monopoly into mobile advertising via acquisition; 
    • DOJ to ensure that Google does not corner the digital book market for orphan works via the pending Google Book Settlement; and 
    • The EU to ensure that the antitrust suits of Foundem, Ejustice.FR and Ciao, are fully investigated and appropriately resolved.