Google, Facebook, Twitter in Social Spat as Antitrust Probe Looms

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Google’s growing struggle with Facebook and Twitter for advantage in the social networking space erupted into public view Tuesday after the search giant’s competitors unveiled a new tool to undermine its latest product, Google “Search plus Your World.”

Engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace created an easy-to-use browser button — known as a bookmarklet — which elevates search results from Google’s rivals. And in a snarky jab at Google’s unofficial motto, the engineers called their bookmarklet the “Don’t be evil” button.

The move comes two weeks after Google introduced a new feature that customizes search results based on a user’s Google+ social networks — provoking opposition from Twitter and Facebook, which say that Google is favoring its own services at their expense. The dustup underscores Google’s increasingly urgent efforts to broaden beyond traditional web search into the social space — and highlights the risks the company faces if it’s seen as using its dominant search market power to the detriment of its rivals.

(More: Facebook, Twitter Engineers Thwart Google with ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Script)

Google is in an increasingly uncomfortable position, and paradoxically, that’s because of its own success. The company is reaching a dangerous level of market share for its core search product, which continues to creep upward. Last month, Google’s search market share increased to 66.1%, from 65.7% in November, according to comScore. Yahoo’s share, by comparison, fell to 16.2% from 16.3% in November, while Microsoft Bing’s share fell to 13.8% from 14%.

As Google’s search share nears the psychologically important 70% level, the discussion about Google’s market power, which is currently at a dull roar, will become deafening. The company is already under investigation by FTC over allegations that it improperly uses its market position to boost its own products and services.

So what percent market share constitutes a monopoly? There’s no hard and fast rule, says Glenn Manishin, an expert on antitrust and technology, and a partner at Washington, D.C. law firm Duane Morris.

“In a famous antitrust case about Alcoa 70 years ago, Judge Learned Hand of New York observed that 30% is probably not enough share, 90% is surely enough, and in between it’s unclear,” says Manishin. “Although the courts have never adopted hard-and-fast rules equating any specific share percentage with the presence of market power.” At any rate, he added, a monopoly “is inferred from high share in a relevant market and other factors, such as entry barriers.”

(More: Search, Plus Your World: Google’s Risky Gambit)

Until now, Google has been able to make a strong case deflecting monopoly concerns. Yes, Google dominates web search, but it achieved that position fairly, with a superior product, not through force of market power, as Microsoft tried to do in the 1990s when it bundled its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows software package. What’s more, Google doesn’t prevent access to rival products — in fact, it makes them available. The company lists Google Finance as the number one search result for stock market ticker symbols, but also provides very accessible links to rival services.

The search giant has a harder time making that case with Google plus Your World, which really does elevate Google+ network results to the detriment of Twitter and Facebook results. Google argues that Twitter and Facebook don’t allow the search giant to index their vast troves of proprietary user-generated data, but as the “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet shows, there is still plenty of material from those services to index. Furthermore, Google has a tough time relying on its traditional “user experience” argument, because for many searches, the absence of Twitter and Facebook results does, in fact, lower the quality of searches.

Still, it’s hard not to look at the “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet and conclude that Facebook and Twitter are acting somewhat hypocritically here. Google would love to be able to index Facebook profiles and photos, much as it would love to be able to index Twitter posts, as is it did with its real-time search product, until Twitter pulled the plug last summer. It would seem that Facebook and Twitter want to have it both ways. They love the traffic that Google sends to their sites, but they deprive Google searchers of the best results by keeping the richest data closed off. Ultimately, the big loser in all of this, as web search expert Danny Sullivan points out, is the average user.