When Google went public in 2004, it included the following quote from its co-founder Larry Page in its public offering filings: "We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we're happy to send you to the other sites. … We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible."

Since 2004, something has changed. In 2019, according to data gathered by SparkToro, Google directs less than half of its search traffic to other sites, keeping the rest within the Google universe. The portion of searches that leads users to other sites has also been steadily shrinking. This shift has profound consequences for competition and innovation.

Google was built to help users explore a diverse and open Internet, and now its behavior poses a unique threat to that ecosystem.

Google swallows so much of its own search traffic in large part due to a feature it calls "information boxes" — panels highlighting Google's own products that the company places in search results above links out to the wider web.

Google displays information boxes for a large array of search queries. Search for "washington dc steakhouse," and the first thing Google will show you is a map and a set of restaurants from Google's own local offerings. Search for "paul mccartney get started lyrics," and Google will show you all of the lyrics to the song, above every other non-Google result on the web.

More than two years ago, the company I work for, Genius — which is dedicated to music knowledge, specializing in producing accurate transcriptions of song lyrics — provided Google with evidence that it was displaying lyrics copied from our website in its information boxes. We showed that several lyrics in the information boxes contained a unique pattern of curly and straight apostrophes that we had embedded. When the two types of apostrophes were converted to Morse code dots and dashes, they spelled out the phrase "red handed."

This month, when we made our evidence public, our watermark vanished from the information boxes, but the lyrics themselves, which still match those found on Genius, remained exactly the same.

On Tuesday, Google announced that lyrics information boxes would now include an attribution to the data partners that provided it with the lyrics. This move would be encouraging, except for the fact that all of the lyrics we flagged for Google as featuring our watermark — and thus clearly copied from Genius — are currently attributed to another company.

Even now, Google denies any wrongdoing and said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal that it takes "data quality and creator rights very seriously." It also said in a tweet that company officials were "investigating this issue and if our data licensing partners are not upholding good practices, we will end our agreements."

We hope so. Our company has invested 10 years and millions of dollars to build a platform that allows fans to collaboratively transcribe and annotate lyrics. We've also spent a decade building relationships with songwriters and artists who see Genius as a home for the art they create and often provide us with verified lyrics to their music.

To be clear, Genius does not own the copyright to the lyrics we host on our site. Lyrics are owned by the artists who write them, and Genius has licensing agreements with music publishers to ensure that when we make money from lyrics, songwriters do, too. But in generating accurate transcriptions of those lyrics and building a database of knowledge around them, Genius provides an important service to music fans.

When Google uses its market power to show preference for its lyrics information boxes by ensuring they always rank first — and populating those boxes with content copied from Genius — it deprives Genius of the traffic and revenue we need to be able to create great products for consumers and to compete with Google. While Google's own search quality guidelines acknowledge that prioritizing copied content over the original source is bad for consumers, there's no guarantee that the search giant's actions will match its words.

Google controls an estimated 94% of the U.S. internet search market. With such immense economic power, it's important now more than ever to make sure Google is behaving ethically and living up to its own guidelines. We are speaking publicly about it now, in the hope that Google will stop behaving in a manner that harms innovation and stifles competition on the internet. If Google doesn't change course, many small, innovative companies will disappear, and the diversity and richness of the Internet will suffer.

 

Gross is the chief strategy officer of Genius. This column first appeared in the Washington Post.