Don't be Hypocritical: Google Upset at MSFT's Default Browser

According to the New York Times, Google has been expressing concerns about the fact that Internet Explorer 7’s search box will ship with Microsoft’s MSN Search as the default search engine:

Google, which only recently began beefing up its lobbying efforts in Washington, says it expressed concerns about competition in the Web search business in recent talks with the Justice Department and the European Commission, both of which have brought previous antitrust actions against Microsoft.

The new browser includes a search box in the upper-right corner that is typically set up to send users to Microsoft’s MSN search service. Google contends that this puts Microsoft in a position to unfairly grab Web traffic and advertising dollars from its competitors.

The move, Google claims, limits consumer choice and is reminiscent of the tactics that got Microsoft into antitrust trouble in the late 1990′s.

“The market favors open choice for search, and companies should compete for users based on the quality of their search services,” said Marissa Mayer, the vice president for search products at Google. “We don’t think it’s right for Microsoft to just set the default to MSN. We believe users should choose.”

Many view Google’s position as hypocritical, given that Firefox, Safari and Opera browsers feature Google as the search engine. Here is Nathan Weinberg’s take:

I hate to say it, but there a few more hypocritical positions Google could take. Google very prominently pays a lot of money to be the default search engine in both Firefox and Opera, so what right does it have to complain if Microsoft intends to do the very same thing?

Microsoft didn’t invent the idea of putting a search box in the upper right hand corner of a web browser, but some of the people who did now work at Google. Google isn’t exactly demanding that Firefox offer up Yahoo search as the default, and if it wants Microsoft to give up its position, it’ll have to give up the Firefox search box as well. And that will never happen.

Others disagree, pushing more of a David v. Golliath argument:

Google has a 50% market share in search, and unlike Microsoft, Google does realize a fiduciary responsibility to their users. Google doesn’t use their dominance in search to put Google’s interests ahead of their users. Google doesn’t only feature Google properties, or invisibly direct users to Google partners, or bias search results to harm competitors. It’s certainly in their power to do so, but they choose not to because that would be lowercase ‘e’ evil.

Unfortunately, Google’s actions aren’t necessarily as benign as this argument hopes. Consider their their deal to pay Dell $1 billion to pre-install Google Toolbar on all their machines, pushing Google products onto users, enabling further penetration of their various personal data-gathering tools. What about the fact that Google’s homepage now features a plug for Firefox if you visit using Internet Explorer? That seems to quality as an act meant to “harm competitors.”

Finally, almost all of Google’s recent actions point to the fact they want to become just as dominant as Microsoft, ultimately eliminating the very need for an operating system in order to experience the web and be productive: Google has lauched e-mail, chat, RSS, and calendar applications. They aggregate news and financial information as well as provide image and mapping services. They’re working on providing database and financial services to users, and even web-based word processing. All these applications tied to the Google name, featuring a Google search bar and Google advertising. All linked witih the same Google cookie to facilitate the collection of user information.

And Google wants us to consider Microsoft evil for defaulting their OS to MSN Search? Don’t be hypocritical, Google.


UPDATE: Nicholas Carr adds his analysis:

But what’s the most powerful and influential default setting in the search world today? It’s not – at least yet – in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It’s on Google’s home page. I would guess that a strong plurality, if not a majority, of web searches are done through Google’s home page, at least in the United States. As “Google” has become synonymous with “search,” people head to its home page as much out of habit as anything else. It is, quite simply, where you go to search the web. But Google doesn’t give you any choices when you arrive at its home page. There’s a default engine – Google’s – and it’s a default that you can’t change. There’s no choice.

If Google wants to fully live up to its ideals – to really give primacy to the goal of user choice in search – it should open up its home page to other search engines. That would be easy to do without mucking up the page or the “user experience.” You could just add a simple drop down menu that would allow users to choose whether to do a search with Google’s engine, or Microsoft’s, or Yahoo’s, or one of the other, less-well-known engines that now exist. The result would be that users get more choice as well as fuller access to the wealth of information on the web (another of Google’s goals). By enabling broader competition in search, right at the point of user access, Google would also promote innovation in search technology, again benefiting the user.

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