Itâs no secret that Yelp has aÂ vendettaÂ against Google. Yelp has long complained that Google favors its own content in search results over Yelpâs, most recently in a recentÂ 60 MinutesÂ piece and in its new âFocus on the Userâ campaign. Despite having no problem reaching its users, Yelp hasÂ engagedÂ in a multi-year campaign to use antitrust law to force Google to direct more traffic to its services. While Yelp may have convinced some TV producers, its biggest problem is the cornerstone of antitrust law is that it exists to protect consumers and not competitors.
Yelp has already made its case to antitrust enforcers, and the FTC comprehensively investigated Googleâs conduct. At the end of this long investigation, all five CommissionersÂ unanimously decided to close the investigation into Google Searchâs product changes in accordance with the unanimous recommendations of staff. The FTC also specifically addressed Yelpâs allegations that Google ranks its own content higher than Yelpâs and disadvantages Yelp in search rankings,Â stating:
Googleâs display of its own content could plausibly be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Googleâs search product. Similarly, we have not found sufficient evidence that Google manipulates its search algorithms to unfairly disadvantage vertical websites that compete with Google-owned vertical properties.
Since the FTC closed its investigation, Yelpâs user baseÂ has grown by close to 70%. Despite this, Yelp continues to lobby and continues to get attention five years later. So it is worth consideringÂ whyÂ the FTC closed its last investigation and whether those reasons still hold true today.
Simply put, the evidence before the FTC didnât show that Googleâs conduct hurt consumers and instead led to the conclusion that Googleâs innovations in Search benefited consumers. Yes, Google shows its own results in direct answer to consumersâ questions (think of the map you see when you search for an address). And yes, Google gains from this increase in consumer attention. But the important measure is not whether Google benefitted or competitors are harmed, itâs whether the conduct benefits consumers.
Using this measure, it remains true that Googleâs immediate answers are useful to consumers many of whomÂ wantÂ an immediate answer. The obvious benefit is that a consumer received an answer right away rather than being directed to another site to perform another search. Unsurprisingly, Googleâs innovation has been adopted industry-wide, and similar results by Bing and Yahoo! shows the value acceptance of immediate answers to consumers.
Even a measure focused on Yelpâs welfare wouldnât lead to enforcement. While Yelpâs sour grapes are unlikely to stop, it was clear at the time of the FTC investigation that competition was a click away. And Yelpâs continued rapid user growth since the FTC closed its investigation vindicates the FTCâs conclusion. One might question whether this campaign is worth the continued expense of resources, especially now that consumersâ reliance on smartphone apps gives Yelp a direct conduit to their customers. Indeed, Yelpâs app is currently ranked the #1 app in the Android Play Storeâs travel and local section with over 10 million downloads. And Yelp is available on many different surfaces that donât rely on Google, like Appleâs App Store, Amazonâs Alexa, Toyotaâs Entune portal, and more. Thus, in addition to a lack of consumer harm, and thereâs scant evidence of harm to Yelp as well.
More broadly, the claims that Google is acting like a monopolist donât square with reality. We expect monopolies to invest less in product improvements and charge more when faced with a lack of competition, leading to plummeting sentiment amongst consumers stuck with high prices and stagnate services. Â But Google is ranked as Americaâs most loved brand byÂ Morning ConsultÂ and third most respected brand byÂ Fortune and continues to provide a long list of free services. And given Googleâs need to keep up in a highly competitive market, its R&D spending is theÂ second highestÂ in the world. Googleâs Search innovations are a reflection of this need to focus on keeping users happy in a competitive market.
There is nothing to indicate that antitrust regulation needs to be changed to accommodate Yelpâs complaints against Google. Indeed, doing so would be a dangerous precedent for a body of law meant to protect ordinary consumers. As Yelp continues its call for regulation over the years, we should continue contrasting their complaints against the clear evidence of consumer benefit.