On Monday, December 5th, the EU hosted a series of workshops on gatekeeper compliance with the new Digital Markets Act (DMA). There was broad consensus that currently Google is not compliant with the DMA. Its practice of embedding its own comparison and local search services at the top of the results page is clearly prohibited by article 6(5):
The gatekeeper shall not treat more favourably, in ranking and related indexing and crawling, services and products offered by the gatekeeper itself than similar services or products of a third party. The gatekeeper shall apply transparent, fair and non-discriminatory conditions to such ranking.
Indeed, the requirement of substantive change was echoed by Oliver Bethell, who leads Google’s EMEA competition team. He stated quite plainly that when it comes to separate services, the obligation created by the DMA is quite clear – “there is no opportunity that can be exclusively Google’s”. It was certainly positive to see direct and clear engagement from Google, whose informative, if brief, presentation outlined a schematic for Google’s DMA complaint search results:
(Apologies for the graininess of the image, which was screenshotted from Google’s slide deck).
The yellow section in the graphic represents Google’s Onebox. Instead of populating the VSS web result segment solely with Google’s content, as is currently the case, third-parties would also be able to supply the information. So rather than just being given Google’s review/information when a user searches ‘restaurants near me’, the information about each restaurant listed in the Onebox would also be provided by a third-party restaurant reviewer. The third-parties listed in this prime search real estate would be determined by Google’s algorithm, which would assess which webpage provides the most relevant information on each specific establishment. Essentially, third-parties would be shifted from the search list to the Onebox. It should be noted that this solution was also proposed by Yelp.
MOW’s chief concern would be that necessary measures ensuring transparency in Google’s algorithm are put in place, otherwise self-preference would likely be the effect. This point was touched on by Mr. Bethell, who stated that Google could give the Commission the ability to monitor search to ensure results are ranked equally based on relevance.
Considering the biggest threat online publishes currently face is search discrimination, these changes are potentially enormously consequential.
Of course, whilst Google has stated it is ‘ready to make changes’, they will use all the time given by the Commission to complete their assignment. This was made clear by Mr. Bethell who referenced the March 2024 deadline for compliance.
Expectations should be tempered – there was audible amusement when Mr. Bethell announced that Google would be compliant by March 2024 “give or take” (he clarified that he was referring to the exact date) – but this direct engagement between Google, the Commission, and stakeholders is a welcome step.