Mo Content, Mo Problems: Google’s Frommer’s Acquisition Could Lead To Additional Antitrust Scrutiny

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With its recent purchase of Zagat and today’s announcement that it is acquiring travel guide company Frommer’s, there can be little doubt that Google is getting deeper into the content business. This move makes a lot of sense for Google, which is trying to add more content to its local reviews business and Knowledge Graph, but it could also put the company under additional scrutiny from antitrust investigators in the U.S. and elsewhere. Already, the consumer advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog is calling upon government regulators to block the acquisition.

There is a fundamental conflict between being a search provider and a content provider,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “As Google has increased its content and services, it has unfairly favored them in its search results and damaged competitors.” The deal, says Simpson, means “Google executives are thumbing their noses at regulators” and “if it is allowed with conditions, there is absolutely no reason to believe the Internet giant will live up to it’s word.”

The group, which counts TripAdvisor, Expedia, Kayak and Microsoft among its members, also just issued a statement in which it “encourages government officials to look closely at its ability to use its dominance in search and search advertising to steer users away from competitors in order to keep users on Google’s own pages longer, and the potentially devastating effects that could have on the online economy.”

It’s worth noting that a number of companies – including some that could be considered to be Frommer’s competitors – have accused Google of highlighting its own content over that of its competitors in its search results over the last few years. Last year, for example, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes Google has abused its market dominance in search. Earlier this year, Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz, one of Google’s most outspoken critics, wrote an op-ed piece in the WSJ in which he noted that the company “needs to become more transparent about when advertisers get better placement in search results and when a result is a Google-owned property.”

With more of its own content to highlight on Google Search, chances are Google will indeed face additional pressure from antitrust regulators to ensure that it doesn’t give preference to its own content on its search results pages. Google, of course, argues that it simply tries to provide the best search results for its users but chances are that the executives over at Rough Guides, Fodor’s and Lonely Planet would have preferred to see Google stay out of the travel content business.

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