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Some say Google search decision may benefit consumers

Google insists that its search results have always been ‘‘unbiased and objective.’’

Andrew Gombert/European Press Agency

Google insists that its search results have always been ‘‘unbiased and objective.’’

‘Don’t Be Evil,’’ the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, proclaimed in their 2004 ‘‘Owner’s Manual’’ for prospective investors in the company. Despite widespread cynicism, criticism, and even mockery, the company has never backed down on this core premise, reiterating in its most recent list of the ‘‘things we know to be true’’ that ‘‘You can make money without doing evil.’’

Yet the company has been dogged for years by widespread allegations that it violates its own pledge by manipulating the search results that remain the core of the company and primary source of its enormous profits.

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Google insists that its results have always been ‘‘unbiased and objective’’ and that ‘‘our search results are the best we know how to produce.’’ But for competitive reasons, it never disclosed the secret algorithms that produce those results, so no one outside the company knew for sure. A growing chorus of complaints from companies like Expedia, Yelp, and, especially, Microsoft that Google manipulates the results to favor its interests at the expense of competitors led both the US government and the European Union to take up the issue.

On Thursday, after nearly two years of investigation, the Federal Trade Commission rendered a verdict: Google isn’t evil.

It may have been ‘‘aggressive,’’ as the commission delicately put it. But ‘‘regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the commission,’’ said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC.

The decision is ‘‘a huge victory for Google,’’ Randal Picker, a professor of commercial law at the University of Chicago Law School and a specialist in antitrust and intellectual property, told me just after this week’s decision.

It’s also a vindication of the integrity of Google’s search results and the company’s credibility.

The decision is a blow to rivals like Microsoft, which has been stirring up opposition to Google for years.

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“There’s never been any evidence that consumers were harmed by Google’s practices and no evidence that Google ever engaged in any manipulation that violates antitrust law,’’ said Eric Goldman, professor of law and director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law.

The decision is also likely to set standards for competition on the Internet for years to come. It’s a blow to competitors like Microsoft, which has been stirring up opposition to Google for years, not to mention newer rivals like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon.

But will the decision ultimately prove to be good for consumers?

The FTC did secure some concessions from Google regarding patent licensing and advertiser options. But to call those a slap on the wrist would be an overstatement. What mattered most to both Google users and competitors was Google’s search practices, which had never been put under the regulatory microscope to such a degree and which the FTC left untouched.

Google’s search results have evolved significantly from its early, simpler days.

When I typed ‘‘flight JFK to LAX’’ on Google this week, I got three categories of results: paid ads at the top and on the right; a Google-produced chart comparing flight options with the disclaimer, which you need to click on, that ‘‘Google may be compensated by these providers”; and so-called organic results below that. The first two organic results were entries for Expedia, a rival to Google’s travel site. But given the layout and size of my screen, none of the organic results were visible unless I scrolled down.

My flight search results seem to bear out the finding that Google doesn’t manipulate organic results, and the paid ads were clearly labeled. But what about the chart Google put together, the result of Google’s 2011 acquisition of the travel site ITA Software? It’s certainly useful to anyone planning to book a flight, and it’s easy to use. It’s information I’d like to see as a consumer. But does it eliminate the need to go to Expedia, leveraging Google’s dominant position in search to harm a competitor?

Goldman did the same search I did, ‘‘flight JFK to LAX.’’

‘‘I don’t like this at all,’’ he said of the Google results. ‘‘It’s stuffed with paid ads.’’

More broadly, Goldman noted that Google’s dominance in search may no longer be relevant since so many consumers are accessing sites through apps on their smartphones.

Goldman said he believed the FTC reached a ‘‘sensible’’ decision. ‘‘If Google does something as well or better as anyone else, what’s the harm? We want search engines to make our lives better, and if they do, it’s a win for the consumer,’’ he said.

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