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EU goes after Google on search practices

After nearly five years of inquiry, the European Union is officially accusing Silicon Valley giant Google of anti-competitive behavior.

The European Commission, an executive body based in Brussels, announced formal charges on Wednesday. The outcome could force Google to fork over big-time fines, and change how users in other countries view its search engine results.

Google denies the accusations, and the stakes are high for both the company and internet users.

In a world where the internet is mobile and ubiquitous — providing an endless amount of information through smartphones, wearables and untethered laptops — search engines have become essential guideposts. They also steer and, by extension, consumer spending. That has prompted questions about how search results are ordered.

Many have focused on Google, which reportedly enjoys a 90 percent market share in Europe. The California company has a sales and engineering office in Midtown Atlanta and an expanding data center in Douglasville.

The EU charges that Google is specifically favoring its own comparison shopping products in general search results.

What does that mean?

When you search for a hat, a handbag or a trip to Hamburg, the commission says, Google might be making sure you see paying advertisers’ results ahead of other merchants’ — taking traffic away from others that might provide better deals on, say, headphones.

“The notion is that Google is diverting traffic, quote, unquote, from third party sites to its own vertical properties,” says Greg Sterling, a contributing editor to search industry blog Search Engine Land.

A critic might read that as Google potentially punishing companies that aren’t advertisers.

A Google executive commented in a blog post.

"Companies like Axel Springer, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and Yelp (all vociferous complainants in this process) have alleged that Google's practice of including our specialized results (Flight Search, Maps, Local results, etc.) in search has significantly harmed their businesses," wrote Amit Singhal, the company's senior vice president of Google Search, in the post.

“But their traffic, revenues and profits (as well as the pitch they make to investors) tell a very different story.”

The legal process is Europe is much different than in the U.S., says Sterling.

While in the U.S. similar such Federal Trade Commission or Department of Justice accusations may end up in courtroom., across the Atlantic, Google has to essentially defend itself to its accuser, not an independent third party.

This isn't the first time Google has faced scrutiny. In January 2013, while announcing a separate settlement, the FTC said it was dropping its investigation into allegations that Google biased its search engine results.