Google’s Beemer Behavior

I’m with those who think that Google’s recent severing of BMW’s online oxygen supply was waaaay too heavy-handed in the circumstances. (Google cut BMW off for serving up different pages to search engines as compared to the pages it serves the rest of us.)

Far from being a sensible exercise of search market power, the move strikes me as arbitrary, overly enamored of internal orthodoxy, and generally reeking of “our way on the electronic highway”.


  1. Cloaking has been debated for years, about whether search engines should allow it or not. What hasn’t been debated is the fact that if you do it without permission, you might get axed. That’s well known to any search engine optimization firm — and BMW seems to have employed an outside firm that did this. Perhaps those risks were never explained to BMW, but I kind of doubt it.
    That aside, cutting off the oxygen supply is way overboard. Search on BMW and you find them just fine. You don’t just find BMW’s German site. Probably by the end of this week, you will. That’s how it goes with big important sitest that get banned. They get right back in with a wrist slap. But even if they didn’t, there’s plenty of other oxygen to them aside from Google.

  2. Roger Bohn says:

    Google is looking out for its users, who are hurt by inaccurate searches. After cutting BMW, Google’s searches are less useful in some ways, more useful in others, but that’s their call. Sure it’s heavy handed, but its very notoriety will keep other firms more honest. It even makes business sense, if Google’s business goal is to give useful search results. The main possible objection is that Google is using its market power to do something others could not get away with, but any other search firm can do exactly the same thing to make its searches more useful: there is no nonlinear effect from being big. If Google is judging the interests of its users wrong, eventually it will lose market share as it becomes less useful. Remember Alta Vista?
    On Chinese censorship, though, the issue is different. There, Google is NOT internalizing both sides of the tradeoff; it gets the business benefits, while the people of China get the costs.

  3. I’d have to disagree, Paul. As I said to Scott on his blog, I think calling this Orwellian is more than a little over the top. As Danny suggests, companies like BMW know the rules and if they ignore them they face the consequences — and cutting off the site sends a strong message to others. If a company doesn’t like it, they’re free to do without Google indexing their site. And people are perfectly capable of finding BMW’s website without Google.

  4. Fourth’ed.
    It’s search-engine spamming!

  5. Okay, I’m apparently in the minority on this one. Good!
    Let me cut through my own rhetoric and remake my main points:
    1) Google has sufficient search market share (46.2% — or more than the next four combined — as of July 2005) that it needs to play nicely in its markets
    2) Europe has already demonstrated a litigiousness in techology markets
    3) Europe has already demonstrate a belief that search is a species of online essential utility online
    4) Google did not need to be so darn righteous about cutting BMW off
    5) Putting it all together, Google may be right, but it is being clumsy and asking for trouble
    Does that make it Orwellian? I’ll leave that to Scott to make his case, because I’m arguing more that with market power comes, for better or worse, an increased level of scrutiny. Google is doing neither itself nor its shareholders any favors in its over-orthodox application of its own rules, consequences be damned.

  6. Michael Robinson says:

    Paul: “Google did not need to be so darn righteous about cutting BMW off”
    That’s not really the question. The question is really whether another course of action would have had better “NPV” results for the company.
    I, and I believe others upthread, would argue that being heavyhanded now, and making a high-profile, attention-getting, media-attractive example of BMW now significantly reduces the long-term recurring costs of mitigating search-index pollution.
    On the cost side, you have to calculate the chance that BMW would be able to muster sufficient popular support for polluting Google results to make any sort of retaliation viable.
    So far it seems no one is actually defending BMW. They’re attacking Google (get in line). So it appears that Google calculated correctly.
    In the case that Google did not calculate at all, and merely got lucky, then you would have a good point.

  7. Google was 100% right.
    BMW knew the rules. This is only getting the attention that it is, becase BMW is big business.
    Oh Waaaah! I got in trouble for rigging the results. Tough! Play by the rules or play somewhere else.
    No one is crying for all the spam-sites that Google has cut.
    When Google stops getting me the results I need, I’ll go elsewhere, but for now they are still easily, EASILY #1.

  8. Another solution for Google: just place a “Google Warning: Untrusted site” in the Google toolbar whenever someone visits that site.