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Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive of Yelp, the local search and reviewing site, would like this article to be focused on his company’s growth, or on how its reviews help independent businesses, or on pretty much anything besides what it is about: How Yelp became Google’s most tenacious pest.
“If you were to have asked me 15 years ago, ‘Hey, are you going to be an anti-trust crusader?’ I would have said, ‘No, I have no interest in that,’” he said in a recent interview. “That was not a childhood dream.”
For six years, his company has been locked in a campaign on three continents to get anti-trust regulators to punish Google, Yelp’s larger, richer and more politically connected competitor. He has testified before Congress, written op-ed columns and used Twitter to bash Google’s behaviour.
Google wasn’t always a rival. At one point, it was a suitor. But out of that union that never happened was born a mighty grudge, perhaps even an obsession.
At one point, Yelp held a hackathon to create a sort of alternate-universe Google, the better for it to explain Google’s ways to regulators. And then you have Luther Lowe.
Lowe, Yelp’s vice president for government relations, once spent $3,000 on a stuffed elephant, because it had been knit by Europe’s anti-trust chief.
Unlike Google, whose office is full of artwork and free food, Yelp’s Washington presence is just a rented co-working space. So Lowe keeps the elephant at Yelp’s San Francisco headquarters, where there is more room. “This is a shoestring operation,” he said.
But after years of trying and failing, that operation has finally landed a good punch. On Tuesday, the European Union fined Google $2.7 billion — the largest anti-trust fine in its history — for unfairly favouring its own services over those of its rivals. The fine was related to Google’s shopping service, so strictly speaking it had nothing to do with the Yelp-Google dispute, which is part of a separate investigation into local search.
Still, Yelp and other American technology companies pushed hard to get regulators to issue a bold condemnation of Google’s behaviour toward competitors, signing a letter that accused Google of “destroying jobs and stifling innovation.” And by affirming that Google is the dominant company in online search — something most people take for granted — Tuesday’s decision is likely to help Yelp’s case.
Asked about future investigations, Margrethe Vestager, the anti-trust chief, offered a diplomatic answer, saying that even though other cases make similar allegations against Google, they must be considered one by one.
“The one thing that has sort of changed from yesterday, before the decision was taken, was that now we will consider Google as a dominant company,” she said.
Yelp is one of a number of American companies — Microsoft and Oracle are others — that have agitated for the world’s governments to take up the fight against Google. It is one tiny player, but through persistence and doggedness, and by being loud and public with its complaints, it has become an unusually prominent voice.
Stoppelman feels he has no choice. Like a lot of small internet companies, Yelp lives in a world where one company, Google, accounts for an outsize share of its business, and could destroy it at any time. Its complaints to regulators are less about working toward some epic and definitive conclusion than they are about continuously brushing back the giant so Yelp can have more room to grow.
“It’s like, you get traffic from this company, and this company is a monopoly,” he said. “If you’re me, it seems like the obvious move.”
Yelp’s campaign against Google provides an inside look at a constant battle in the technology industry: The conflict between large companies that control how people use technology and the internet, and the smaller, more vulnerable businesses that live inside those platforms.
Be it Netscape, whose 1990s-era internet browser was the catalyst for anti-trust charges against Microsoft and its Windows operating system, or Spotify, whose music service must now compete with Apple’s own music app, any company trying to build a business on another company’s system runs the risk of being snuffed out or swallowed up.
For Yelp, the issue is where Google displays “organic” website rankings — the ones spit out by its algorithm — in relation to the “vertical” results that Google itself provides.
For example, say you searched for “steakhouse New York.” The first set of results, consuming the entire screen of a mobile phone, is a map and a set of restaurants from Google’s local offering. The results have information like hours, stars and customer reviews. Below that are links to reviews, articles and other sites. Like Yelp.
Yelp’s contention is that by putting its own results at the top, Google is giving itself an unfair advantage, because those results don’t have to jump through the same algorithmic hoops non-Google sites are subjected to. And since Yelp says few people go beyond the first or second result, companies like Yelp are made invisible.
Google disagrees. The company declined to comment beyond its official statement on the European fine, but it has repeatedly said that as smartphones displace desktop computers as the internet gateway, people just want the answer to their question — not a link to a site where they might have to repeat the query — and that Google’s results oblige.
Local queries — such as looking for nearby restaurants — account for roughly a third of all search traffic. So Google has a big incentive to keep people within its search engine, where it can sell ads, instead of sending them to Yelp, which also sells ads.
Separately, some businesses have claimed that Yelp stacks the deck by playing up bad reviews when businesses don’t buy ads from it. Yelp has denied those claims.
This dispute would be moot if people were in the habit of using a variety of search engines. Google has become so universally known and depended upon that it is sometimes hard to remember that it is a company, and it exists to make money.