Italy’s antitrust authority is investigating Google to ascertain whether it has abused its dominant position in Italy.
According to the Federation of Italian Publishers, Google’s supposed abuse is that it “impedes publishers from freely choosing how news content published on their websites is used.” In addition, news sites which decide not to appear on Google News in Italy are no longer indexed by Google’s search engine, and thus no longer appear in search results.
This, in the opinion of Italy’s antitrust body may distort the online advertising market, in that the publications rendered invisible by Google will not be able to attract advertisers, and will thus lose income, but there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Google News – No Listing, No Indexing equals No Choice
Effectively, the antitrust authority is arguing that publishers have no choice as to whether they are listed by Google News. This is because the only way to stop Google News from using content is to stop the Google’s search engine systems from visiting a website. The result is that a site no longer shows up on either Google News or in Google search results, and thus become much less appetising for advertisers.
Bad Google is Sending Users to Content Which Interests Them!
The report on the issue also states that seeing as Google often sends visitors directly to content, this means the home page of sites are bypassed and advertising placed thereon is not seen. Er, this is how search engines work – most webmasters, including me, know that the home page is nowhere near as important as it appears to be. This actually gives publishers even greater opportunities for placing adverts, as it means that each and every piece of content becomes ad space. Italy’s major publishers don’t seem to have cottoned onto this.
Google Can Be Blocked
From what I know about Google News, to become listed a site which already appears in Google Search results has to demonstrate that it has an ‘editorial team’ behind it. What Italy’s publishers seem to be implying is that once a site has become part of Google News, it can no longer leave the network, or else it will lose visibility throughout Google. This does sound as though it is a strange claim, and there are ways, something called a robots.txt file, to restrict Google’s indexing to specific parts of a website, or so I understand.
The authority points out that the publications listed by Google News do not receive any recompense from Google for the use of their content, nor do they receive income from advertising which appears within Google News listings in other parts of the world. Advertising is not shown on Google News’ Italian version.
Google Victim of Its Success?
Google Italy’s reaction to the allegations has been muted so far, but it has stated that Google News provides publishers with readers – and the antitrust report on the issue acknowledges this. However, it does look as though Google may end up being a victim of its own success. After all there is no law which states we have to use Google as our search engine of choice, nor look at Google news. And if you do not want to be included in Google News, why should Google include your site in its search results?
Google‘s search engine is used by around 90% of Italy’s internet users according to the report by the antitrust authority. Which also argues that extra Google’s free add-ons, such as Gmail and iGoogle, reinforce Google’s market dominance. Beware! Offering free services can get you into trouble, which is what the antitrust body appears to be insinuating.
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Google has achieved its market dominance through reputation and, generally, technological superiority. The attack on Google News is also strange in that one cannot understand why any publication would object to being included in its service. After all, you see a snippet of news, and then visit the publication in question to read the story which interests you. When you visit the publication, you see the ads, and the publisher receives some income.
How many people would pay to be listed by Google News? The exposure it generates for news websites is potentially phenomenal – indeed, I would like Blog from Italy to be listed on it, and would probably hand over a percentage of my advertising income in order to be listed if such an opportunity arose. Indeed, this would be similar to the cut which news-stands obtain from each publication they sell. Google is, to all intents and purposes, a news-stand.
Google could argue that Google News helps sell news, which is, effectively, how the company has reacted, and could react further by saying, either pay, or you will not be listed on Google News. How would Italy’s publishers react to this?
Italy’s Newspaper Publishers Losing Print Sales?
This is pure speculation, but could it be that, in the face of falling advertising revenues from their printed publications, Italy’s publishers are attempting to find an easy way to generate income in the form of royalty payments? There would be some precedent for this, as Google pays the Associated Press to list its content on Google News. However, press agencies and stand alone publications are not the same thing.
What has not yet been made clear is just which of Italy’s news publications are behind the challenge to Google News. One suspects, though, that Google’s lawyers will be able to fend off this challenge, but the forthcoming battle, if it ever makes it to the courts, will be interesting.
I’ll be very interested to hear what my SEO expert friend, Sean Carlos, makes of this kerfuffle.
La Repubblica, 27 August 2009: In Italian – Antitrust, istruttoria su Google su segnalazione degli editori – Antitrust, Google under investigation at the request of editors
Wikipedia – Google News – see the News agencies section
Italian Antitrust Authority – Initial Report on Google News Situation – in Italian, 12 page .pdf file.