Google ditches pay-to-play Android search choice auction for free version after EU pressure

·6-min read

Google is ditching a massively unpopular auction format that underpins a choice screen it offers in the European Union, it said today. Eligible search providers will be able to freely participate.

The auction model was Google's "remedy" of choice -- following the 2018 EU $5 billion antitrust enforcement against Android -- but rivals have always maintained it's anything but fair, as we've reported previously (here, here, here).

The Android choice screen presents users in the region with a selection of search engines to choose as a default at the point of device set up (or factory reset). The offered choices depend on sealed bids made by search engine companies bidding to pay Google to win one of three available slots.

Google's own search engine is a staple "choice" on the screen regardless of EU market.

The pay-to-play model Google devised is not only loudly hated by smaller search engine players (including those with alternative business models, such as the Ecosia tree-planting search engine), but it has been entirely ineffectual at restoring competitive balance in search market share, so it's not surprising Google has been forced to ditch it.

The Commission had signalled a change might be coming, with Bloomberg reporting in May remarks by the EU's competition chief, Margrethe Vesager, that it was “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work. So it evidently heard the repeated cries of "foul" and "it's not working, yo!". And -- finally -- it acted.

However, framing its own narrative, Google writes that it's been in "constructive discussions" with EU lawmakers for years about "how to promote even more choice on Android devices, while ensuring that we can continue to invest in, and provide, the Android platform for free for the long term", as it puts it.

It also seems to be trying to throw some shade/blame back at the EU -- writing that it only introduced what it calls a "promotional opportunity" (lol) "in consultation with the Commission". (Ergo, "don't blame us gov, blame them!")

In another detail-light paragraph of its blog, Google says it's now making "some final changes" -- including making participation free for "eligible search providers" -- after what it describes as "further feedback from the Commission".

"We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen. These changes will come into effect from September this year on Android devices," it adds.

The planned changes raise new questions -- such as what criteria it will be using to determine eligibility; and will Google's criteria be transparent or, like the problematic auction, sealed from view? And how many search engines will be presented to users? More than the current four, that's clear.

Where Google's own search engine will appear in the list will also be very interesting to see, as well as the criteria for ranking all the options (market share? random allocation?).

Google's blog is mealy mouthed on any/all such detail -- but the Commission gave us a pretty good glimpse when we asked (see their comment below).

It still remains to be seen whether any other devilish dark pattern design details will appear when we see the full implementation.

Update: More details on how the choice screen will work can be found here -- including some details on eligibility where Google says vertical search engines won't be able to participate; only general search engines can. It will also weed out multiple search brands owned by the same entity, with only one able to appear. Companies that syndicate Google's search results and ads also won't be eligible.

It's worth noting that it's not in Google's gift to claim these changes are "final". EU regulators are responsible for monitoring antitrust compliance -- so if fresh complaints flow they will be duty bound to listen and react.

In one response to Google's auction U-turn, pro-privacy search player DuckDuckGo was already critical -- but more on the scope than the detail.

Founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out that not only is the switch three years too late but Google should also be applying it across all platforms (desktop and Chrome too), as well as making it seamlessly easy for Android users to switch default, rather than gating the choice screen to set-up and/or factory reset (as we've reported before).

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Another long-time critic of the auction model, tiny not-for-profit Ecosia, was jubilant that its fight against the search behemoth has finally paid off.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Christian Kroll said: “This is a real life David versus Goliath story -- and David has won. This is a momentous day, and a real moment of celebration for Ecosia. We’ve campaigned for fairness in the search engine market for several years, and with this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market. Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

The Commission, meanwhile, confirmed to TechCrunch that it acted after a number of competitors raised concerns over the auction model -- with a spokeswoman saying it had "discussed with Google means to improve that choice screen to address those concerns".

"We welcome the changes introduced by Google to the choice screen. Being included on the choice screen will now be free for rival search providers," she went on. "In addition, more search providers will be included in the choice screen. Therefore, users will have even more opportunities to choose an alternative."

The Commission also offered a little more detail of how the choice screen will look come fall, saying that "on almost all devices, five search providers will be immediately visible".

"They will be selected based on their market share in the user’s country and displayed in a randomised order which ensures that Google will not always be the first. Users will be able to scroll down to see up to seven more search providers, bringing the total search providers displayed in the choice screen to 12."

"These are positive developments for the implementation of the remedy following our Android decision," the spokeswoman added.

So it will certainly be very interesting indeed to see whether this Commission-reconfigured much bigger and more open choice screen helps move the regional need on Google's search engine market share.

Interesting times indeed!

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