Google Flight Search Not a Monopolist Move

Google must feel very put-upon at times. It tries to help searchers find what they’re looking for, and prides itself on not being evil. Lately, though, whenever it does the former, observers accuse it of doing the latter – even if some other search engine did it first. Such is the case with Google Flight Search.

Just in case you missed it, this new tool came on the scene about four months ago as the first fruit of the search giant’s purchase of travel software company ITA. At the time Google acquired ITA, the US Department of Justice required it “to develop and license travel software, to establish internal firewall procedures and to continue software research and development” in order to “protect competition for airfare comparison and booking websites and ensure those websites using ITA’s software will be able to power their websites to compete against any airfare website Google may introduce.” If you want to review Google’s announcement of the purchase, you can see it here.

I haven’t used the tool very much myself yet; for whatever reason, it doesn’t  work yet for the places to which I want to travel. Greg Sterling gives an excellent run down on how it works. Basically, if you put a travel-related search into Google – “flights from nyc to san francisco,” for instance – you get some extra information. A box appears below the sponsored results, but just above the actual links, that shows you some of the flights available on various airlines, along with their times and flights.

You can click on a link in this box to see more Google flight search results, or choose “Flights” from the links in the left column; they’ll both take you to the same place. It’s a sophisticated filter that lets you choose airports, departure and arrival dates, connections, duration of flight, number of stops, and more. When you’re done, you get a list of flights that meet your criteria. In some cases, you can click on the flight and book it directly from these results.

It seems to be both the positioning and booking aspects of the filter that put Kayak and other travel-focused search engines up in arms. Danny Sullivan noted that the Wall Street Journal even ran a story on the filter, though it claimed the new travel results started appearing in December rather than in September 2011. According to Sullivan, the article only quoted Kayak as slamming Google for the move. He said that they complained that Google has an “’explicit policy to intercept general search queries with their products,’ and therefore, ‘their argument that they’re not engaging in anticompetitive practices doesn’t hold up to basic logic.’”

Should one competitor in an industry get stoned for engaging in the same practices as its rivals? As Sullivan explains – and as I’ll get to in just a minute – that’s exactly what’s happening here. In fact, Google is being more even-handed, in a way, to travel search engines than its rival Bing. But Kayak’s cozy relationship with Microsoft’s search engine gives it no cause to complain about this behavior.

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If I ran a huge general search engine like Google, I wouldn’t put Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, and other travel-focused search engines at the top of my list of rivals. I’d put Bing there. Bing bills itself as a decision engine. It started doing that at least as far back as May 2009. In a press release explaining its approach, Microsoft explained what it meant by this. “Microsoft’s research identified shopping, travel, local business and information, and health-related research as areas in which people wanted more assistance in making key decisions. The current state of Internet search isn’t optimized for these tasks, but the Bing Decision Engine is optimized for these key customer scenarios. For example…In Bing Travel, the Rate key compares the location, price and amenities of multiple hotels and provides a color-coded key of the best values, and the Price Predictor actually helps consumers decide when to buy an airline ticket in order to get the lowest prices.”

That sounds great…and suspiciously similar to what Google is offering. Where on Bing can you find these tools? Right after the sponsored search results and right before the regular links – just like Google. In fact, Sullivan noted that back in July, the Wall Street Journal opined that Google’s purchase of ITA was driven by Microsoft’s innovative search moves. Here’s the Journal quote: “In fact, some analysts see Google’s move into travel as a direct reaction to the offerings at Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Some of Bing’s features, like travel search, ‘have put some pressure on Google’ to innovate, wrote Douglas Anmuth at Barclays Capital.”

Why hasn’t anyone complained about Bing’s anti-competitive practices? Bing “has less than a quarter of Google’s audience,” according to the Journal. Also, in March of last year, Bing and Kayak announced a formal partnership in which Kayak agreed to serve flight search results to Bing. So Kayak’s hardly going to complain about Bing.

Kayak seems upset that Google won’t link to it for free in its flight tool. Bing doesn’t link to any of Kayak’s rivals for free within its flight tool. But somehow, that’s okay with Kayak, since it’s getting all this traffic. Can you imagine the howls of outrage that would ensue if Google tried to partner with one of the travel search engines in the way that Bing did with Kayak?

In a sense, this actually happened – but with the airlines. Jeremy Wertheimer, who founded ITA and now serves as a Google vice president, noted that they would have liked to include booking links to online travel agencies. But they needed travel data, and the airlines refused to provide that data if the search engine included those booking links. That’s why all of the booking links through Google’s flight search tool take you directly to the appropriate airline’s website. Looked at this way, Google is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and can’t make anyone happy.

Even so, I can’t call this a tempest in a teapot. Sullivan insists that it’s unfair to accuse Google of anti-competitive behavior without acknowledging that its rivals are doing the exact same thing, and even have a head start. “The more that search engines start diving into providing direct transactions or being transaction brokers…the more any publisher should be concerned. But that problem isn’t a Google-specific one and shouldn’t be treated in that manner. Otherwise, potential abuses by Google get stopped but others are free to do the same.” He’s right, but Google’s size and market power might cause the courts to see things differently. It certainly has in the past, with different players.

I remember when Microsoft was accused of monopolist behavior by bundling its Internet Explorer browser with its operating system, so users would be disinclined to seek out and try other browsers – even when they could get those browsers for free. The software giant was leveraging its operating system to give it a leg up in another field. Is that what Google is doing here?

It’s possible. But I also remember the fallout from that case. Even as it was tried in the courts, rival browsers appeared – and now we have Firefox, Chrome, and others, which many argue are superior to IE. I can’t tell you whether we’d have those browsers today if the courts had not constrained Microsoft. I can tell you that it’s not nearly as easy to put constraints on competitive innovation – whether it’s at large corporations or small, scrappy start-ups – as many would lead you to believe.

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