Google Changes How It Displays Ads in Bid to Please EU

(Bloomberg) -- Google is making changes to how it displays shopping, local and other search results as it tries to avoid European Union criticism over its compliance with a 2017 antitrust order.

The tweaks are an attempt to fend off any extra penalties for failing to comply with the order. They may also stymie early-stage EU inquiries into local search and jobs search services. The search giant is aiming to end nearly a decade of EU antitrust trouble as regulators ready a separate fine for its AdSense advertising service as soon as next week, its last formal investigation.

The U.S tech giant is adding links that direct users to results on specialist search sites such as Bookatable GmbH & Co. and, smaller rivals said on social-media posts and their websites. Bookatable’s German site said the search changes kicked in for it Friday, according to a Twitter post. Online shopping sites Redbrain, Lyst and have also mentioned the changes.

Alphabet Inc.’s search engine was told two years ago to figure out how to comply with an EU ruling ordering it to offer equal treatment to rivals, along with a 4.3 billion euro ($4.9 billion) fine and a threat of more if it didn’t obey the order. It opted to sell space in an ad panel at the top of its search page and split off the Google Shopping unit, which must bid against rivals without financial help from parent firm Alphabet.

The changes seek to address criticism from rival search services that they weren’t seeing much traffic to their own websites. The earlier offer showed results to the product or service a person searched for -- but only provided a small link to the service that produced the result. The intention of the new links is to show users they can see a range of results on specialist sites, which might allow them build an audience away from Google.

The EU has never said if it likes Google’s proposal. If it doesn’t, it can levy a daily fine of as much as 5 percent of global revenues for failing to comply with the order. Microsoft Corp. had to pay 561 million euros when it failed to abide by an order.

While Google declined to comment on the changes, it discusses some of them on a help page for advertising customers.

Google is acting after getting coded warnings from the EU. The low visibility of different shopping comparison services "makes me unhappy" because consumers should have help comparing retailers’ offers, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager told reporters in October. She spoke after getting complaints that Google may have encouraged “fake” sites to boost the number bidding for ad slots.

She also started quizzing companies about how Google displays local and travel search services, an information-gathering exercise that can lead to a full-blown investigation.

Vestager indicated she knew of Google’s efforts to make changes and told EU lawmakers earlier this month that regulators are “in intense working processes with Google on the shopping comparison case.”

“We see Google making a number of changes for competition to be restored,” Vestager told an audience in Austin, Texas on March 10. "We do see a number of changes and we see them also testing things but we don’t know where that will take us yet."

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