Google, a Longtime Ally of Travel Sites, Is Now a Powerful Rival

Google has long been one of the biggest drivers of new business for travel websites like

Expedia

and Tripadvisor. Some of them say the

Alphabet Inc.


GOOG 0.16%

unit is also a big competitive threat.

Berlin-based HomeToGo GmbH is an example of the bind facing many travel businesses. The vacation-rental website depends in part on Google to direct people to its service, but it says business has been affected by the search company’s placing a box of listings from third-party travel sites atop many pages of search results for vacation rentals.

In Google searches conducted this past summer, the rate at which people clicked when HomeToGo was the top regular result fell as much as three-quarters when Google’s vacation-rental listings box was present above, compared with when it wasn’t, according to calculations HomeToGo provided to The Wall Street Journal.

“Suddenly Google puts a less-good product more prominently above everything, and you’re thinking, ‘Is this fair competition?’” said Patrick Andrae, HomeToGo’s co-founder and chief executive.

Going Down

HomeToGo gets fewer clicks on its links in Google search results whenever Google’s vacation-rental finder box appears on the results page too.

HomeToGo’s click-through rate in each search position, by presence of vacation-rental box

HomeToGo’s click-through rate in each search position, by presence of vacation-rental box

HomeToGo’s click-through rate in each search position, by presence of vacation-rental box

HomeToGo’s click-through rate in each search position, by presence of vacation-rental box

Critics like HomeToGo say that Google’s travel boxes and other kinds of specialized search products increasingly keep users within the Google ecosystem, encouraging them to use Google products rather than clicking to other sites to transact business.

Google says it sends a growing volume of traffic to other websites and that, when it comes to travel information, its search engine faces tough competition from travel sites. A spokeswoman says Google developed new ways to display search results to satisfy users’ desire for quick access to helpful information. “Removing these results would create a worse experience for consumers and send less traffic to travel companies,” she said.

As antitrust regulators on both sides of the Atlantic investigate allegations that Google and other Silicon Valley giants have leveraged their heft to squash competitors, one area of focus is on the companies’ alleged abuse of their role as internet gatekeepers to punish or extract concessions from potential rivals, according to people familiar with the matter.

The U.S. Department of Justice is moving toward bringing an antitrust lawsuit against Google, potentially in the coming days, the Journal has reported. Google’s search practices are likely to be a key focus of such a lawsuit, the Journal report said, citing people familiar with the matter.

The European Union’s top antitrust authority has issued Google more than $9 billion in fines, in part following allegations by shopping websites that say Google pushed down their search results with its own box of product ads. Google has appealed those decisions. EU officials have said investigators are now looking into the company’s use of

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