August 28, 2012

Google and the Controversial Case of the Vanishing Vitamins

For well over a week now, my inbox (always replete with Google-related queries) has been overflowing with questions, concerns, complaints -- and in some cases very upset commentaries -- regarding a supposed case of Google censorship.

What is supposedly being censored, you might ask?

Is it political speech? Sexual imagery? Some unsavory combination of these categories?


Folks are filling my disks with concerns about the apparent removal of vitamins, dietary supplements, and other related "natural products" merchandise from Google Shopping.

Most of the complaints date back to this posting in Natural News on 19 August.

A much angrier essay from yesterday demonstrates the depth of feelings involved in some quarters.

Even before those articles were published and most definitely since then, I've received many independent anecdotal reports about this from Google users -- unable to get any answers directly from Google -- asking what's actually going on.

Unsurprisingly, in the absence of accurate information on this score, an "evil Google censorship" meme has been flourishing.

What's really going on?

First, it's important to stipulate that we're talking about Google Shopping, not the primary Google Search. It was recently announced that Google Shopping would be switching to a fully merchant-fee based system, with quality control over listed items being a primary focus.

I think this may be our first clue regarding the controversy at issue.

What does Google have to say about all this?

I spoke with them at some length yesterday. The word is that very shortly, perhaps even within the next couple of weeks, many of what I would term to be associated "foundational" products should be returning to Google Shopping.

Vitamin C, shampoos -- things like that.

Google is currently engaged in the technical process of categorizing the kinds of merchandise that will return, and arranging for deployment.

But what of the remaining types of products that have reportedly vanished and apparently will not be returning at this time? Why were they removed in the first place?

Google won't say directly. And while as we've discussed many times in the past Google still really needs to improve its communications transparency (within the bounds of avoiding people "gaming" the system), I believe it is possible to read between the lines a bit in this case.

Think about it. People claiming "evil censorship" by Google aren't making any sense.

Why would Google drop products if they didn't feel there was some really important reason? What is the possible benefit of actually refusing to accept the significant income that could come from such listings if they were permitted? And remember, Google's competitors are still reportedly carrying the kinds of listings that Google has dropped. Google isn't going to put itself in a competitive disadvantage in these product categories in an illogical manner.

Google doesn't act randomly. There must be some logical explanation.

And I'm guessing that it essentially boils down to the old idiom, "Once bitten, twice shy."

You'll recall that almost exactly a year ago, it cost Google something like $500 million to settle the AdWords "illegal pharmacy listings" case with the U.S. government.

While Google's actual culpability in this matter always struck me as highly questionable, the bottom line is that they did agree to the settlement, and a situation like this is likely to cause one to be extremely careful about anything that might be considered to be even remotely similar in the future.

The settlement apparently didn't mandate that Google not list supplements or related products.

But again, think about it.

Once we get beyond the category of those "foundation" products I mentioned above -- that will be returning to Google Shopping shortly -- you move quickly into the realm of supplements and products that make all manner of often unproven and unsupported health claims. Even fans of "natural products" know how such claims can easily push into the realm of the old "patent medicine" barkers.

And especially with Google Shopping moving to an all-paid model, what possible incentive -- particularly in light of the pharmacies settlement -- would Google see to entangle Google Shopping with this specific category of products going forward?

Frankly, I'd likely take the same approach if I were Google.

Maybe my analysis is completely wrong. But it seems logical, and appears to fit the facts and the timing.

It's not entirely clear to me why Google is unwilling to say more about this now, but I Am Not a Lawyer, and I'd bet there are quite rational legal considerations that come into play.

Above all, we can safely assume that Google isn't being irrationally arbitrary about this situation.

There's no reason to assume that they "hate" supplements and other natural products, or that they'd walk away from potential income from listing such items if there weren't really solid considerations for doing so.

So it's very clear that the term "censorship" is not at all an appropriate label for this matter, and if anyone or anything is really to blame, perhaps what many observers felt to be the overzealous prosecution of Google in the pharmacy case deserves particular note.


Posted by Lauren at August 28, 2012 09:50 AM | Permalink
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