Last updated: February 22, 2011 10:47 pm

Google faces fresh search complaint

A fresh complaint accusing Google of abusing its dominant position in the online search market and blocking the development of rival search businesses has been filed with the European Union’s antitrust watchdog.

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It comes from a French company, 1plusV, related to Ejustice.fr, one of three companies that originally filed complaints against Google with the European Commission last year.

These prompted Brussels to open an in-depth probe against Google, looking at whether the search company gave preferential treatment to its own services when ranking results and whether its contractual relationships with advertisers may also have breached competition rules.

1plusV, which was formed in 2004 and is controlled by Bruno Guillard, is alleging Google illegally “tied” its search engine and its Adsense advertising service – which allows advertisers to buy a keyword that, when typed in as a search query, produces a commercial link alongside the search results.

Mr Guillard said on Tuesday that in order to secure some revenue from the vertical search engines that 1plusV had developed it was necessary to use Adsense, and that this, in turn, proved technically impossible without using Google’s own search engine.

The complaint – described by 1plusV as a “follow-up” to the first Ejustice.fr complaint – alleges this tying “kills off” competing search technologies. “1plusV accuses Google of pursuing a strategy of foreclosure against vertical search engines,” it claims. The complaint also details other alleged competition breaches, including discrimination in favour of Google’s services in search results, and “apparent retaliatory” actions against other sites run by 1plusV after the Ejustice.fr complaint was filed.

It comes at a sensitive time. In another sign of the growing pressure on regulators to subject Google to greater antitrust scrutiny, a prominent US lawmaker has called on the Department of Justice to take a close look at the company’s proposed acquisition of travel search company ITA.

John Conyers, lead Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote to Christine Varney, head of antitrust enforcement at the agency, urging that the proposed deal be reviewed “carefully to ensure competition and transparency will be protected in the online travel industry”.

Mr Conyers also highlighted issues raised last week by the American Anti-trust Institute, which had claimed the deal highlighted broader problems with Google’s growing dominance of the search market, even if it was not clear the ITA acquisition would harm the online travel business. Google said the AAI’s grounds for broadening the regulatory investigation were “vague new standards [with] no basis in the law”.

On Tuesday, 1plusV said it was not pressing for a disclosure of Google’s search algorithm, but believed there were other changes the commission could impose on Google.

Google has consistently denied dominating the online search market, and contested individual allegations made against it. It said its behaviour was driven by the desire to give users of its search facilities the best results.

Google on Tuesday said: “We continue to work co-operatively with the European Commission, explaining many aspects of our business. We believe there is always room for improvement.”

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