San Jose Mercury News (CA)
GOOGLE RANKING UNFAIR, SITE SAYS
OWNER OF LOCAL SHOPPING, DINING NETWORK CONSIDERS COMPLAINT TO REGULATORS
July 29, 2011
Edition: Valley Final
Mike Swift, firstname.lastname@example.org
With federal regulators pursuing an antitrust probe over whether Google is abusing its dominance in search to favor its own online products, a company that owns several Bay Area websites promoting local small businesses is taking the rare step of publicly challenging the fairness of the search giant.
ShopCity, the parent company of local sites such as ShopPaloAlto.com, ShopMountainView.com and ShopPleasanton.com, says Google provides it an unfairly low ranking, especially since those sites have the backing of groups such as the city of Menlo Park, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper. A search for "Palo Alto restaurants" on Google this week didn't reveal a ShopPaloAlto.com result until the seventh page of results, while the site ranks at the top for identical searches on Yahoo or Microsoft's Bing.
"The most dangerous man is a man with nothing to lose, and that's the position they've put us in," said Colin Pape, the president of ShopCity, who is considering complaining to federal regulators.
Google defends its rankings as serving users. But ShopCity also says Google is taking its content and displaying it in Google Places, which like ShopCity displays business information such as location, operating hours and customer reviews. The practice is called "scraping," and companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor.com also have complained about the practice.
As Google moves heavily into local services in an effort to attract small advertisers, and faces antitrust scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission and other regulators, long-standing complaints about how it ranks millions of websites may take on a more problematic ring for the Mountain View Internet giant, as unhappy websites allege anticompetitive behavior. Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, would testify Sept. 21 about antitrust issues. The Texas attorney general also has an active antitrust investigation against Google and other state attorneys general may follow.
A quality issue?
Google says its low ranking of ShopCity sites is fair because the vast majority of its more than 8,100 local sites across the U.S. and Canada do not feature original content. ShopCity acknowledges that all but 44 of its sites do not yet have original content, and the company says it has asked the search giant not to crawl and rank those sites. But Google says it must consider the collective authority of the company's Internet properties, just as someone wouldn't judge a supermarket tabloid as superior to a national daily newspaper based on the accuracy of one story.
"We're committed to returning high-quality sites to our users," said Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesman. "In the case of ShopCity, this is a network of thousands of sites that appear lower in Google's rankings because nearly 100 percent of the sites violate our quality guidelines. For years, these sites have contained little original content, substantial duplicate content, along with cookie-cutter templates. Our users frequently complain to us about these kinds of sites."
But ShopCity does have 44 sites, including seven Bay Area sites from Gilroy to Menlo Park to Pleasanton, that feature extensive original content, including features like restaurant menus, discount offers from local merchants and community event listings.
The low search ranking has also angered local business leaders who say they are trying to create a quality online presence for independent businesses that can compete against local listings by big companies like Google or Yelp. One business linking extensively to ShopPaloAlto.com is the Palo Alto Weekly, but publisher Bill Johnson says the local listing site is hard to find on Google. He finds the site's low ranking suspicious, because Google search results are based in part on links to other websites.
"Clearly Google is monkeying with the settings manually to prevent that from happening. We're out trying to build a community business website that is providing local businesses with some really great tools they can use to enhance their online presence," Johnson said. "With all this antitrust stuff going on, is Google really trying to make it difficult for those entities who are attempting to compete in the local consumer Web area?"
Search industry expert Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, said such suspicions about a site as small as ShopPaloAlto.com are "ludicrous. If that was what (Google) was worried about, you would never find Yelp," a formidable competitor for Google that offers restaurant reviews and business listings, Sullivan said.
But Sullivan said Google should be able to differentiate between higher-quality ShopCity sites such as the Bay Area sites, and placeholder sites waiting until ShopCity makes partnerships with local groups for listings.
"Do I think there is something wrong here? Probably," Sullivan said. "Do I think it's because Google has an antitrust agenda? No."
ShopCity is represented by Palo Alto antitrust attorney Gary Reback, who represented a group of companies, including Microsoft, in opposing Google's plan to scan millions of out of print books.
ShopCity's suspicions were triggered when, two days after the June 24 announcement of the FTC inquiry, ShopPaloAlto.com and other Bay Area sites suddenly began ranking better on Google, providing a temporary 400 percent increase in search-engine driven traffic, only to fall back to near zero in mid-July when Google downgraded its sites again. Pape said ShopCity was unable to get a reply from Google about what happened.
Stricker, the Google spokesman, said an earlier automated penalty imposed against ShopCity sites by coincidence had expired at that time, but Google imposed another penalty when it received outside complaints about ShopCity sites. Local partners say they still have high hopes for their network.
"I absolutely think it's a valuable service," said Paula Sandas, president and CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. "This is a very simple and economical way to have the Web presence that the rest of the world seems to have."
Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648.
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