Google’s map display box could have boosted traffic to rivals, product manager says

9 November 2015. By Sille Ruubel.

If Google had placed maps from rivals in a display box in its search results, traffic to their sites probably would have risen, mirroring an expected increase for Google Maps, a senior company official has told a London court.

But to avoid delay and keep the results page clean, Google decided to use only its own maps in the box, said Jack Menzel, the US company’s director of product management.

Google is facing a damage claim from UK online-map provider Streetmap before the High Court. A preliminary trial, which opened last week, is examining an allegation that the search engine has abused its power by bundling Google Search with Google Maps.

Streetmap says Google discriminated against rivals by reserving the “Maps OneBox” display slot atop its search results page for its own maps — and showing other results as basic hypertext links — from June 2007 to June 2010.

Menzel appeared as Google’s first witness today and on Friday afternoon, when he began giving evidence on the company’s thinking when it created the Maps OneBox.

‘Correct answer’

Mark Hoskins, a barrister representing Streetmap, asked why the clickable thumbnail maps were displayed in a rectangular box and why, until June 2010, they always appeared as the first result in the search results page. Was it, he asked, “so people would notice it?”

Menzel qualified his agreement. “We wanted a correct answer first,” he said.

Streetmap says that traffic to its website — and its revenue — dropped suddenly in June 2007, when Google searches began placing its own clickable maps in the OneBox.

Hoskins asked whether searches for specific geographical locations always showed a Google map in the OneBox as the first result starting in June 2007 — and not lower than the second position beginning in June 2010, when Google updated its policy.

Menzel agreed, saying Google put the OneBox first when it was a “really good answer” and second if there was “a more sophisticated” answer.

Hoskins said that Google was thus “well aware [that the] top of the results page . . . was an important spot.”

Menzel agreed.

Hoskins asked if users expected Google to give the right answers and to place them in “the top three spots?”

“I really hope so,” Menzel replied. “It is kind of the idea.”

The barrister then raised the possibility that the appearance of the OneBox in either the first or second position might push “a more relevant” answer to a query lower. “Maps OneBox was not placed naturally,” he said.

Menzel disagreed.

Clicking through

Hoskins asked if Menzel would agree that the “automatic” appearance of the OneBox as the first or second result “increased the chance a user of search would click on it.”

Menzel agreed.

Hoskins then cited Google internal strategy documents that showed the OneBox was “expected to drive more traffic” to Google Maps. “If other maps [were] included in Maps OneBox,” the lawyer asked, would you expect the “click-through to their maps” also to increase?

“Yes,” Menzel answered, “if we had designed a Maps OneBox where other maps” also appear.

Before June 2007, the old-style OneBox contained three links, side by side, to maps from Google Maps, ViaMichelin and Maps 24.

Hoskins asked whether customers are “best placed” to choose which map they want to use.

Menzel agreed, saying “we give them a choice. I am sure there are people who like other maps over Google Maps.”

Hoskins then said that Google Maps didn’t provide a feature in June 2007 to “search by telephone code” or by “latitude and longitude.” These were “features Streetmap had [and] you didn’t have at the time,” he added.

Menzel said that was true.

Cluttered page

Today, Peter Roth, the presiding judge, asked why the rivals’ links were removed in June 2007 when, technically, “they could have been kept.”

“Technically, it wouldn’t have been a problem,” Menzel replied. But “we wanted to keep the page fast,” he said, “and found that the addition of links didn’t add much to what was already on the page. They also didn’t always work.”

Google’s second witness, digital-mapping specialist Gary Gale, also testified today, saying that users these days tend to “move on to the next thing” if a new service gives them more relevant answers, faster.

Users are “impatient and intolerant of delay and confusion,” he said. The idea of presenting them with two maps as an answer to one location query is “confusing,” he said.

While questioning Menzel, Hoskins said that Google officials didn’t discuss including rivals’ maps in the OneBox or what “disadvantages might arise” if they did so. In the UK, they made no experiments or investigations about the clutter and latency issues, he said.

Menzel said that was correct.

Alternatives

Hoskins then asked a hypothetical question. If Google had decided in 2007 to include alternative maps in the OneBox, how would you have “designed that solution?”

That would have involved gathering “all the mapping data,” Menzel replied. “We would do all the serving and processing ourselves,” to make sure the maps were delivered as fast as possible.

Menzel then ran through Streetmap’s explanations of how Google could have included rival maps in the display box.

One involves using rivals’ thumbnail maps directly in the OneBox as a response to a query. Others involve using “geocoding,” which uses postal addresses and the like to find geographic coordinates, and “web-crawling” software to find publicly available web pages and follow their links.

“The query-based approach is tricky, as [we would] have little assurance to get the right place,” Menzel said.

“Geocoding one is a little bit better,” he said, but you could end up in a “bizarre inconsistency . . . [where] you have a map in a wrong spot. Imagine that Streetmap knows where the address is, [but] we geocoded it to a different location,” Menzel said.

With web crawling, you will remove “some latency,” Menzel said. “The problem is, it’s a lot of work.”

Given all those options, Hoskins asked, was this “something that could have been done?”

“With enough time and resources,” Menzel replies, “we could do pretty much anything.”

‘Distinct products’

On Friday, Hoskins had noted that Google Maps and Google Search were created as “distinct products.”

Menzel agreed. “They were different URLs,” he said. “If you talk [about] map queries, you could use the service separately.”

But with “universal search,” Hoskins said, Google was trying to unify the user experience. The company wanted people to use Google Search, rather than Google Maps, he said, suggesting that Google wanted to leverage its strength in the search market to drive traffic to its maps service.

Menzel said Google was looking for ways to give users faster results, without having to click on a navigational link to get there.

If you search for puppy photos, Google immediately shows them as results, sparing the user from having to click on a link to get there, he said.

The trial continues tomorrow.

	Eliot Gao

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