Google's self-promotion leaves advertisers in the cold

Ten years since its IPO Google has shifted towards presenting its own content at the expense of advertisers who rely on its search traffic.

Google co-founders Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin pose for photos at the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters in 2004. The company's richer information is causing angst among advertisers accustomed to its basic index offerings. Associated Press.

Just before Google went public 10 years ago, co-founder Larry Page said he wanted to get the search engine's users "out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible".

Today, Page's Google often is doing the opposite: providing as much information as possible to keep users in Google's virtual universe.

Once, a Google user searching for a hotel was shown 10 text links to online travel agencies and hotel operators. Now, that search displays reviews, photos and an offer to book a room on the first Google results page.

Looking for an Italian restaurant near Times Square? Google displays hours, directions, and phone numbers that can be dialled with one touch from a smartphone. Shopping for car insurance in the UK? Google presents a comparison of available policies.

    Those results highlight how the world's largest search engine is transforming its core business, and the basic notion of search. Today, with Page as chief executive, the Mountain View, California company is less a web index and more an internet destination, offering content and commerce within an ever-growing array of Google services.

    Its transition promises to be a tricky one for its own business and for millions of others dependent on its search results to survive.

    Advertisers will pay more than $US50 billion to the search giant this year for clicks that deliver potential customers to their web pages. By offering its own hotel listings, for example, Google may alienate advertisers such as online travel agencies that alone pay it billions a year.

    Those companies fear that Google's changes will reduce the number of bookings for which they can claim commissions. "All the value add is going to Google and everyone else becomes a commodity," said a former executive of an online travel agency.

    The shift has spawned anti-trust investigations worldwide as some online publishers complain Google wields its extensive influence over what internet users see to promote its own content and services, in the process helping some businesses while hurting others.

    A US Federal Trade Commission probe was closed in Google's favour more than a year ago.

    The changes risk Google's standing as a neutral arbiter of internet content and the most widely used search engine. Today, those attributes have helped make it the third most valuable company in the US, behind Apple and Exxon Mobil.

    INFOGRAPHIC: 10 years since its IPO, how far has Google come?

    If Google is perceived as favouring its own content over impartial search results, it would risk losing users over time. But if users find the results more helpful, they'll keep coming to Google, forcing advertisers to stay there.

    So far, the shift hasn't hurt Google's financial results. Advertising revenue rose 18 per cent in the first six months of this year compared with a year earlier, and while the stock is up about 4 per cent in the same period, it is up 38 per cent over the past 12 months.

    Google has said its shifts are motivated in part by users' shift to mobile devices from personal computers. Google's revenue from search ads on PCs fell last year for the first time, researcher eMarketer estimates.

    On the smaller screen of a smartphone, users spend more time in apps and less time browsing the web that Google has organised and monetised via search-related advertising.

    As smartphones proliferate, clicks on Google ads are rising. But ad prices are falling, down nearly 20 per cent since the start of 2012 in part because clicks from a phone aren't as valuable. Buyers searching for products on a phone complete purchases roughly one-third as often as those on PCs, said Scot Wingo, chief executive of e-commerce consultant Channel Advisor.

    "The goal is not to keep you on Google, the goal is to get you the information you need as fast as possible," said Ben Gomes, a Google vice president. "If that's a quick answer, we give it to you. If it's a link to a page, we give that to you."

    Google says that when it promotes its own content, it is benefiting users. They could switch to Bing or another search engine if they don't like its results, a spokesman said. Its share of the US search market has been holding steady at around 67 per cent for the past four years, said researcher comScore.

    Searching for Answers: Google has remade its search results since its 2004 IPO to provide users with more information to encourage them to stay within Google's virtual walls. It's also selling more and more-varied ads. Below are results from a search for 'drake hotel, chicago' and 'flight'.

    Page once saw things differently. "Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web," he said in a 2004 interview with Playboy Magazine.

    "We feel that's a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn't necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal's results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that."

    Page declined to comment for this article.

    Now, from inside the Google Maps app on a smartphone, users can hail a car from the Uber Technologies car-hailing service. Google's venture-capital arm has invested hundreds of millions in Uber, which isn't paying for the promotion, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

    Google doesn't provide a similar link to competing apps from Lyft or Sidecar, which may offer a cheaper ride.

    That irks Sidecar chief executive Sunil Paul. Users "should have more than one choice when using Google Maps," he said.

    A Google spokesman said it is interested in working with others in the future.

    Lyft and Uber declined to comment.

    In searches for products or services, Google often features its reviews, even if other sites have more detailed information.

    Piper Jaffray last month examined listings for 500 businesses in 20 cities. It found that local-search specialist Yelp on average had more, and more detailed, user reviews than Google.

    Nonetheless, Google typically promotes its own reviews next to photos of local businesses, higher on the results page than a text link to Yelp's reviews. Yelp declined to comment.

    A recent search for "Seattle Washington hotels" delivered pictures, brief listings and links to Google pages for more than a dozen hotels at the top of the results page.

    Just below appeared text ads for booking services and hotels. The first 'natural' link -- the one that Google's search algorithm determined was most relevant -- appeared more than halfway down the page and led to travel service TripAdvisor.

    TripAdvisor's listings typically have more information than Google's own. It lists more than 500 user reviews of the Sorrento Hotel; Google, which features its own listing for the Sorrento at the top of its results page, has 26 reviews.

    Many Google hotel listings now allow users to enter potential dates for their stay, and book a room directly with the hotel.

    That, say industry executives, is a threat to some of Google's biggest advertisers -- online travel agents such as Priceline Group or Expedia, which generate most of their revenue from commissions on bookings.

    TripAdvisor, Expedia and Priceline declined to comment.

      As Google seeks to collect and display more information, it sometimes leans on other web publishers to share content or lose prominence in its listings. Last month, Google told retail advertisers they must supply product reviews from their own sites to Google, or their ads won't include star ratings that encourage clicks.

      Some of these practices have prompted complaints to antitrust regulators in the US and Europe, which so far have led to few changes in Google's practices.

      The US Federal Trade Commission closed an investigation into Google's search practices in January 2013, saying the changes it reviewed may have benefited users.

      In a proposed settlement with European regulators in February, Google agreed to dedicate space for competitors atop its search results. Under pressure from Google rivals, some European commissioners want to reopen the deal and push for harsher sanctions.

      Google provides answers to a growing list of factual queries on its results page, saving many users the trouble of clicking a link.

      That may disrupt Google's unwritten compact with website operators: Google republishes snippets of information from and links to their sites on its search results page.

      Some users still follow the links, but others may no longer feel the need.

      Traditionally, Google was "sending me traffic and helping me monetise my traffic," said Ivan Bercovich, senior director of engineering at FindTheBest.com, a specialised search engine. "It has been very symbiotic for a very long time. Now it is getting complicated."

      So far, Google's moves still require users to go elsewhere to complete a hotel rental or other transactions. But some fear that may be changing.

      "What if we were the storefront ourselves?" an executive at an e-commerce company said he was asked by Google.

      "We're not building such functionality now," a Google spokesman said.

      Write to Rolfe Winkler at rolfe.winkler@wsj.com.