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September 20, 2011

This week Google ex-CEO Eric Schmidt will testify at a Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing that investigates persistent allegations of Google abusing its market power. Other witnesses include Jeff Katz, CEO of Nextag, and Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp -- ably representing the publishers whose sites are pushed lower in search listings as Google gives its own services preferred placement. But who will speak for advertisers' interests?

Each year Google bills advertisers some $30+ billion; advertisers quite literally pay the bill for Google's market dominance. Yet advertisers seeking search traffic have little alternative to the prices and terms Google demands. Consider some of Google's particularly onerous terms:

Google likes to argue that "competition is one click away." First, I question whether users can actually leave as easily as Google suggests: Popular web browsers Firefox and Chrome strongly favor Google, as Google CFO Patrick Pichette recently admitted ("everybody that uses Chrome is a guaranteed locked-in user for us"). In the mobile context, Android offers Google similar lock-in. And even on non-Google mobile platforms, Google serves fully 95% of searches thanks to defaults that systematically direct users to Google. Meanwhile, syndication contracts assure Google exclusive long-term placement on most top web sites. Against this backdrop, users are bound to flow to Google. Then advertisers must go where the users are. Whatever choice users have, advertisers end up with much less.

In the last ten years, Google grew from 12% to well over 80% worldwide. In that time, Google moved from zero ads to a dozen or more per page; from placing ads only on its own site to requiring advertisers to purchase ads with thousands of partners of dubious or unknown quality; from hustling to convince advertisers to buy its novel offering, to compelling advertisers to accept the industry's most opaque pricing and most onerous terms. At the start of a new decade, Google is stronger than ever, enjoying unrivaled ability to make advertisers do as Google's specifies. It's time for advertisers -- and the regulators who protect them -- to put a check on Google's exploitation of its market power.