In June, the European Commission handed Google a €2.4bn (£2.1bn) fine for breaching antitrust rules for promoting its own shopping comparison service at the top of search results.
Google has duly delivered on the European Commission’s (EC) demands to change its methods and it now ensures Google Shopping has a less advantageous position in search listings.
But the whole saga has only underlined how paid-for advertising still holds such a dominant position when comparing search listings online – consumers do not see the full picture of what’s out there to buy.
If this fine to Google and the consequent fallout is to help shoppers in any way, it needs to be the start of a fairer playing field for all.
Research commissioned by Pricesearcher has found that while 77% of UK consumers use price comparison websites, 39% are unaware that they don’t provide the full picture in terms of products available.
As of the end of September, Google’s competitors in the comparison shopping service market, such as Kelkoo and PriceRunner, have been allowed to bid on placing ads under the same terms used by Google Shopping.
“Consumers do not see the full picture of what’s out there to buy”
Google’s vice-president for engineering Oliver Heckmann used the company’s Adwords blog to unveil the new opportunity that affects the European Economic Area countries and Switzerland, where Google Shopping ads are available.
His comments that the ads “help retailers and brands connect with shoppers whether they’re at home, on the go or in the store” all ring true but, as consumer group Which? recently stated, online shoppers should always be confident in finding the best deal for them.
Regulators must ensure there is constant scrutiny of Google and all aggregator websites that display product price listings, to ensure consumers have access to information about all products – not just a limited few.
Since the Google fine was issued, several changes have started to appear on the search engine.
A “By Google” message now accompanies product listing ads to make it clear who the listing is powered by. It will take time to understand the degree to which listings powered by Google’s rival shopping sites now appear online, but it bodes well for a more balanced and competitive landscape.
At the time of the antitrust verdict, the EC said Google’s practices had resulted in traffic to rival comparison shopping services dropping significantly – up to 85% in some cases in the UK – but the recent changes should help reverse that trend.
“Regulators must ensure there is constant scrutiny of Google and all aggregator websites that display product price listings”
Google isn’t about to lose its dominance online any time soon, but the EC clamp down has certainly helped move its Shopping service on to a more level playing field with competitors.
The crucial point to consider though isn’t about how it affects multinational organisations – but how it all impacts shoppers.
The fine and the warning to Google means we’re now on a road to seeing much more balanced shopping options for online customers, which is certainly positive news.
Heckmann hinted at new Google Shopping capabilities on the horizon that will help businesses and consumers as the retail industry enters its peak season. He promised that Google will launch “innovations that make Shopping ads work even better for everyone”.
That is a welcome move and I’m eager to hear what those new developments are because, at present, paid advertising continues to be the norm when it comes to Google’s shopping tab and price comparison sites in general.
Consumers using the web to search for items they want to buy surely deserve high visibility of all available products, not just those that have been given a financial leg up.
- Samuel Dean is chief executive and founder of search engine Pricesearcher