Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to get my head around why Google has force-integrated its Google+ social network into its main search feed at the expense of leading social services like Facebook and Twitter. The situation seems like an antitrust case waiting to happen, because Google could easily choose to feature the publicly available content from its social rivals in the same way it is showing its own product within its market-dominating search engine. It just hasn’t.
You’d think that Google has an intimate awareness of what it can and can’t get away with, given how often it has been scrutinized for antitrust issues already.
So, actually, yeah, let’s assume it does… that it has predicted this criticism, and even an investigation by the US Department of Justice. What’s the plan?
There could be a grand strategy for provoking the US government to investigate the market shares of search and social products as a single issue, in a way that puts Facebook on the defensive, especially as it looks to go public.
Facebook has played favorites with developers on its platform and with partners throughout its history, without any serious legal scrutiny. The mechanisms it has had to do this over the years include: showing stories from favored parties more often in users news feeds, under-enforcing any spammy trangressions, providing extra notifications and requests, providing early access to viral features, etc. Beneficiaries of Facebook’s favor over the years have included Causes, Spotify, arguably Zynga, large advertisers… and strategic investors/business partners like Microsoft.
Regarding search, Google can argue that Facebook has gone even further than anything involving Google+. Facebook provides Bing search as the only third-party results within its Facebook.com search engine, and it also provides Microsoft with additional public data including individual Likes, that gets incorporated into Bing. Google has been left out in the cold.
You can imagine how Google might frame this to the government. It’d go something like this (and the following is something I made up, it’s not from Google or anyone else): “We are competing against a social networking company with clearly dominant market share, that has a strategic relationship with our largest existing competitor. That relationship specifically excludes our search engine from working effectively. This is no more fair than our integration of Google+ into search. If you’re going to regulate us, regulate them, too. Or leave us all alone.”
Even if Google takes all sorts of grief from the government (not to mention users and the press) over this, the biggest end result could be new scrutiny on its two main rivals. The fact that Facebook has never had to go through an arduous antitrust investigation before means any suggestion of one now could give investors pause as it looks to go public sometime within the next year.
If this sounds like a drastic, hardball, inside-the-Beltway style approach to competing, well, Google has been pretty clear that it has heard Facebook’s footsteps behind it. Playing tough is what companies do when they think they’re facing an existential threat.
This hypothesis could also explain why Facebook tells me it isn’t commenting, even as Twitter has gone on a public rant about the injustice of it all.
But, the situation isn’t all about getting the visible hand intervening to regulate the market. Google has a conveniently self-serving compromise available for Facebook, that could short-circuit an investigation. It goes something like this: “allow us full access to all the data that Bing is getting, and we’ll start including you in search in the same way that G+ is.”
The big catch to this idea, at least for now, is that when you consider Bing’s relatively weak market share, and the lack of effect Facebook has had on it, it’s unclear if the Justice Department will take this sort of issue seriously. Facebook may be the Google of the future, but Google is the Google of the present. And maybe Google is just trying to see what it can get away with ahead of what we can expect to be habitually slow federal interest in whatever moves it makes.