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More from the US v Google trial: Vertical search, pre-installs and the case of Firefox/Yahoo

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We’re nearly two months into the Justice Department’s landmark antitrust case against Google — one of the biggest fights in tech antitrust since the U.S. took Microsoft to trial in the 1990s — and the revelations just keep getting juicier.

In our last roundup, we learned how Google spent $26.3 billion in 2021 making itself the default search engine across platforms and how Google tried to have Chrome preinstalled on iPhones. Over the past couple of weeks, more of the inner workings of Google has come to light, including some of the search engine’s most lucrative search queries, what the revenue-share agreements between Google and Android OEMs look like and why Expedia has a bone to pick with Google.

Before we go into some of these tidbits…

Why the Google vs. U.S. antitrust case matters

The government has argued that Google uses its platforms and deals with partners to block out any competition in search or advertising, thus hindering competitors from accessing the data they’d need to improve their products.

If Judge Amit Mehta rules against Google, the search giant may have to change its behavior and share its APIs with third-party developers. It may also be banned from making anticompetitive and exclusive deals with smartphone and computer manufacturers and wireless carriers.

Google might end up having to turn over all or most of the data it has collected to other search engines so they can improve their products and attract more users. The DOJ has said that Google gets 16 times more data than Bing does everyday.

Enforcers want to show that antitrust law remains relevant and that even though Google is basically the God of the internet, it’s still no match for the U.S. law.

The Google outcome could also have a ripple effect on other Big Tech cases. The FTC sued Amazon in September for using anticompetitive and unfair strategies to illegally maintain its monopoly power. The DOJ has been investigating Apple for years over the company’s policy for third-party apps on its devices and whether it unfairly favors its own products. There’s an ongoing case between the FTC and Facebook, wherein the agency calls on Facebook to sell Instagram and WhatsApp.

This isn’t Google’s only antitrust case in trial right now. The search engine giant last week settled a separate antitrust lawsuit with dating site Match Group. On November 6, Google went to trial with Fortnite maker Epic Games. The latter hopes to prove that Google engages in anticompetitive behavior with regard to its Android app store, Google Play, and its commission structure.

Now, onto the roundup!

A window into Google’s most popular search queries

Judge Amit Mehta ruled to make a list public that provides a glimpse of which search terms make Google the most money. The list of popular search terms ordered by revenue includes 20 terms that were lucrative for the week of September 22, 2018. Information like revenue per search term, how many queries each of those terms got, along with a separate list of popular search terms ordered by queries (not revenue), were all redacted. The list we can see is as follows:

  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 plus
  • Auto insurance
  • Car insurance
  • Cheap flights
  • Car insurance quotes
  • DirecTV
  • Online colleges
  • AT&T
  • Hulu
  • iPhone
  • Uber
  • Spectrum
  • Comcast
  • Xfinity
  • Insurance quotes
  • Free credit report
  • Cheap car insurance
  • AARP 
  • LifeLock

There is, in reality, little surprise here. We’ve already established that Google and Apple have a long and mutually beneficial relationship, even while competing, so it’s not surprising to see three Apple search-related queries bringing in the big bucks — not least since September 22, 2017 was the official release date of the iPhone 8. 

Meanwhile, queries like “car insurance,” “cheap flights” and “credit report” are perennial favorites and they speak to how much Google dominates vertical search — that is, search in very specific market categories. As for LifeLock… the big Equifax data breach of 2017 was a hot topic in September 2017 and LifeLock was making a big push to win business with people who wanted to buy identity theft protection.

Revenue-shares to pre-install Google apps on Androids

Jamie Rosenberg, a Google employee who focuses on Android and Google Play, testified in Google’s defense on November 8. He said that the competition between Google and Apple is “as intense as it gets,” reports Bloomberg

Rosenberg explained how Google gets manufacturers to sign a mobile app distribution agreement (MADA) that requires Android smartphone makers (like Samsung or Oppo) to pre-load a bundle of 11 Google apps on the device, including Search, Chrome and Play. They don’t have to be the default choices, he said. 

Google also has revenue share agreements (RSAs) with smartphone makers and wireless carriers (like Verizon) that require them to set Google search and Chrome web browser as defaults. Rosenberg defended the move and said it was because Google apps [like Search] are “best in class.” The RSAs also motivate other companies to make or sell more Android devices, he said. 

Expedia complains of too many ads on search, expensive ad payments

On November 1, Barry Diller, chair of Expedia and IAC, testified about his concerns regarding the increasing number of ads in search results having an impact on organic listings. 

“I must say I’m on the edge of revolt now that Google’s actions are so punitive, not just for Expedia but also for IAC and all the players that depend upon something of a level playing field,” wrote Diller in a letter to Google back in 2019, according to Bloomberg.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai fired back that Google’s travel listings was one of the most popular experiences the company built. 

Expedia execs also testified about the cost of ads and how increases had no impact on search results. On October 19, Expedia’s former chief operating officer, Jeff Hurst, told the court the company’s ad fees increased tenfold from $21 million in 2015 to $290 million in 2019. And yet, Expedia’s traffic from Google did not increase. The implication was that this was due to direct competition from Google itself. Hurst pointed out that Google began sharing its own flight and hotel data in search results in that period, according to The Seattle Times

European antitrust fine spurs Google to beef up search engine quality

The government argued on November 10 that Google only endeavored to enhance its search engine in the European Union after it was hit by a €5 billion antitrust fine in 2018, internal documents revealed, according to Bloomberg.

The EU’s antitrust order forced Google to offer Android phone users a screen with five search engine options to choose from, according to the DOJ. In response, Google enacted a plan, which execs dubbed “Go Big in Europe,” to enhance search results in France and Germany in 2019 and 2020 with more local content: news, post-game soccer video highlights, information on local television options for streaming, and pronunciation practice for different language. The aim was to incentivize users to click on Google’s home screen, rather than the competition’s.

That revelation effectively supports the Justice Department’s argument that Google, without the push of competition, has little incentive to improve its products, a classic consequence in a monopoly.

Mozilla digs in on Google’s supremacy in search

Interestingly, on November 1 Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker provided a defense of Google’s quality as a search engine, even in “competitive” environments. Specifically, Baker recounted how, Mozilla “failed” when it switched Firefox’s default search engine from Google to Yahoo.

Quick backstory: Yahoo inked a deal with Mozilla way back in 2014 to pay the browser maker $375 million annually to be the default search engine on Firefox. At the time, Google was offering $276 million, said Baker. Reader, that was a bad deal.

“I felt strongly that Yahoo was not delivering the search experience we needed and had contracted for,” she said, according to Bloomberg. The executive said Yahoo had promised to reduce the number of ads and offer less user tracking, but ended up gradually serving users more ads anyway.

“The number of users who stayed with Firefox declined noticeably during the years when Yahoo was the default,” said Baker.

Baker, who was providing a recorded deposition for Google’s defense, noted that Mozilla’s users apparently wanted and expected Google.

However, that is not the full story. Yahoo was already well behind Google in terms of search technology at that point. But also, Firefox was very well behind Chrome, which ended 2014 with nearly 50% market share and ended 2017 (when Google got prime default search position on Firefox) at nearly 65% of all web browser usage on desktop: and mobile is even more skewed to Chrome. In other words, the number of Firefox users might have been declining for other reasons, although pushing the blame on Yahoo certainly works in Google’s favor here!

The trial continues…

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