Google Chief Defends Company's Search Practices

Google critics accuse the company of playing favorites with its search results. Google executives have always denied this, but the accusations haven't gone away. Eric Schmidt, the company's chairman, was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to answer questions about the company's business practices.

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DAVID GREENE, host: Here in Washington, Google's business practices have been in the spotlight. The company has sure come a long way from its early days in a California garage. Its competitors now complain it has monopoly powers. Some of Google's rivals told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that the search giant uses its power to direct Web traffic to its own sites. Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, denied it plays favorites with its search engine. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI: The antitrust subcommittee chairman, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, noted Google started as a company offering unbiased search results. But its empire has grown and expanded into everything from shopping to mapping and mobile search. And Kohl said that's raised questions about its neutrality.

Senator HERB KOHL: Does Google's transformation create an inherent conflict of interest which threatens to stifle competition?

NOGUCHI: Google chairman Schmidt said the company's principles haven't changed. He said what guides it is math, not bias. Google's search technology is a mathematical algorithm that ranks Web pages in accordance with their popularity and relevance.

ERIC SCHMIDT: Last year alone we made more than 500 changes to improve search. It's not an easy task. Our challenge is to return the most relevant answers first. This means that not every website can come on top.

NOGUCHI: Schmidt said the goal is to anticipate and deliver the information users want and that Google's famous algorithm is not shaped by a corporate interest to rank its sites ahead of others. Rivals hotly disputed this. Jeremy Stoppelman is CEO and co-founder of Yelp, a consumer-review site.

JEREMY STOPPELMAN (CEO, YELP): Google forces review websites to provide their content for free to benefit Google's own competing product, not consumers. Google then gives its own product preferential treatment in Google's search results.

NOGUCHI: Stoppelman says Google goes beyond that. He said Google threatened to delist Yelp from its search engine if it didn't comply. And Yelp, like every other website, depends heavily on Google to attract users. Jeffrey Katz founded a comparison shopping site called Nextag. He said initially Nextag regarded Google as a partner. It helped elevate his company's stature, until Google started offering its own shopping site.

JEFFREY KATZ: Today, Google doesn't play fair. Google rigs its results, biasing in favor of Google shopping and against competitors like us.

NOGUCHI: Now, he said, Google makes it difficult to find Nextag in its results. Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal compared the allegations against Google to rigging a horse race, an analogy Minnesota Democrat Al Franken later tried to fine-tune.

Senator AL FRANKEN: You might have been saying that you think Google might be doping the horses.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: Is that what you're saying?

Senator RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: I didn't say that.

FRANKEN: Oh, okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: I guess I misunderstood.

NOGUCHI: For Google, the stakes are high. The company faces antitrust reviews by the Federal Trade Commission and the European Commission. It's fending off comparisons between it and Microsoft, which faced costly and very distracting litigation a decade ago. Google's chairman Schmidt said things have changed a great deal since then, and the comparison isn't fair.

SCHMIDT: I do ask you to remember that not all companies are cut from the same cloth and that one company's past not be another's future. We live in a different world today and the open Internet is the ultimate level playing field.

NOGUCHI: If you don't like Google, he said, then just click away from it. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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