Antitrust criticism of big tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google are louder than ever — from the mouths of consumers to the tech companies that compete with them. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has been vocal for years about the problem with Google’s dominant market share in maps, local search, and reviews.
“I’ve been working on it for over a decade and it’s great to see that more people have jumped on board,” Stoppelman says. “When we started out criticizing Google and highlighting some of their abuses, we got — especially from Silicon Valley — so many eye rolls.”
The Verge‘s Nilay Patel and Casey Newton recently caught up with Stoppelman to discuss the evolving view of the media and the public on tech monopolies, as well as how Yelp is handling problems with its own competition and what possible changes can arise from government regulation.
Below is a lightly edited excerpt of the conversation.
Nilay Patel: Yelp has been pushing on Google in terms of antitrust forever. There’s more scrutiny now than ever. It seems to be working. What’s your view of it? Is it having the results you want?
Jeremy Stoppelman: I mean, I’ve been working on it for over a decade and it’s great to see that more people have jumped on board. When we started out criticizing Google and highlighting some of their abuses, we got — especially from Silicon Valley — so many eye rolls and, “Oh, you’re just a bunch of whiners.” And I think the conversation has really shifted to a more productive place where more and more business leaders, entrepreneurs, consumers, just everyday people, are understanding, “Hey, we have a massive consolidation problem.”
These businesses are the gateway to information, period. And they’re essentially completely unregulated. They’re running amok, essentially they’re tuning their algorithms — in a lot of cases — to highlight the most engaging content, which might not be the best content, might not be the most useful, might not be the most truthful. And who’s pushing back against that? And I think that’s become a real problem. I think everyone’s woken up to this consolidation issue.
And so now the question is, how fast can we move on it? Of course, there’s multiple companies to talk about. We’re talking about Google. Which one gets the majority of the attention and focus? I think, obviously, Google is a great one to focus on. But there is a wider antitrust conversation. I think it’s very healthy. I think it could have come earlier, but I’m not complaining. There’s no point in complaining. We’re here and we’ve got a lot of people now on Team Antitrust. And that’s a good thing.
NP: Have you talked to the other companies that are pushing? Like, have you played Fortnite with Tim Sweeney? Do you and Daniel Ek hang out in a Discord? There is some conversation about these companies actually teaming up to provide some consolidated market power of their own.
I mean, if you go back to the Microsoft case, the way you as a company want it to work — because taking on these behemoths is extremely expensive, very difficult. Ultimately, there’s a political component to it. So ideally, you want the government to act because they have way more resources than any one company, certainly a company like Yelp. And if the regulators act, then they start to uncover things and emails come out, information comes out. The pressure and the scrutiny also just helps the competitive dynamics sometimes.
And so, our strategy has always been to help, support, aid, encourage the regulators to do their job, and push back on Google as an abusive monopoly power. And then depending on what information comes out of that, then maybe you decide that you have an individual antitrust case that you want to bring. But historically, that’s been the winning strategy rather than you — a much smaller, less powerful company — individually bringing a legal case before the government even acts against someone like Google. So that’s kind of our position.
Casey Newton: But we’re still sort of talking about Google as if it’s the only possible entry point to Yelp. And the thing that happened since your company was founded was the rise of mobile phones; the app stores exist, right? There’s a world in which the Yelp app is just so freaking good that everybody has to run out and download it and this is how they access all their local information. So even just to play devil’s advocate, what is the answer to, “Come on, Yelp, can you just actually compete a little bit harder to have other tools to get customers’ attention that are not antitrust cases?”
Yeah, I would say that you could look at our traffic makeup. We still get a huge portion of our traffic from Google. So while I feel better about our market position, and we are more diversified traffic-wise and without the mobile app ecosystem emerging, we would be in a far worse position — who knows where we would be, frankly — if that didn’t exist. So I would call that a lifeline rather than, “Oh, you’re totally fine. Nothing to worry about. You’re a bunch of whiners, so stop complaining and get back to work.”
I think the other thing to remember is, think of the enormous resources a monopoly power has and can put against you. You look at mapping technology, not many people can afford to play in the mapping space period anymore. What happened to Navteq and some of these big maps players? Google entered the market, they gave away a free product essentially, although they now charge for it, and some of the independent mapping players fell over as a result. So these big monopolies bring in insane amounts of resources to fight.
So I would say it’s a minor miracle that we’re still standing. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve competed successfully. But I think in my mind there was no question we would be a significantly bigger company with more resources to invest if Google had played fair and not tipped the scales in their favor to make sure that their content, their local results, are always at the top and increasingly taking up more and more of the page. When it comes to local, if you do a local search on Google — especially mobile — it’s a chore to find organic results anymore.
NP: What’s your preferred outcome? Is it Google has to pay you for scraping your data? Is it that they have some minimum amount of traffic they have to redistribute? They can’t do local search. What do you want?
We, in collaboration with some other companies like TripAdvisor, worked on a demo of what could exist, it’s called focusontheuser.com. You can kind of see what it is, but it’s essentially taking that local box and making it interoperable. I think a pretty good example is actually if you look in the recipe category. It’s interesting because I don’t think there’s a lot of money in recipes. So as a result, Google has done what Google used to do, which is it organizes the world’s recipes. And instead of keeping you on the site just to see a recipe, they’re happy to send you along onto somebody’s independent blog. And so there’s a whole vibrant ecosystem of players within the recipe space. So why can’t they do that in local? Seems pretty straightforward.
NP: Do you think Google should not be allowed to enter local search? Should they not be allowed to enter any other category where they have a structured enough dataset to just deliver the result?
Certainly they can compete, but they should compete on a level playing field. And in fact, when they tried to, they were losing. There are conversations that are now public that were over email, where they’re like, “Oh yeah, Yelp is coming up so much. We have to do something. Okay. Whenever Yelp is going to show high-end results, we should trigger our map box and make sure that our results are above it.” They literally had an “if” statement in their code that said, “If Yelp, then show us our stuff above it.” If you occupy a monopoly position, you should not be able to basically jam everybody off the page just because you want that revenue to yourself. You built up this trust with consumers, they all learned to rely on you. You bought up all the search box market share so anyone that types in a search — whether it’s Safari or Firefox — is going straight to your site and then you’re burying objectively better content. I’m sorry, that’s not playing the game fairly.
NP: One of the challenges that every competitor Google has — Yelp certainly, but also Bing or Alta Vista or whatever — is that the amount of incoming user data to Google is so high. How do you break that from a regulatory perspective? I can’t just make everybody in America use Bing for two months to be able to catch up to Google, right? How do you solve that feedback loop, which seems like the heart of a lot of the data monopolies that we see?
I think you ideally make it so that Google can’t take all of the lucrative areas that it doesn’t currently occupy, and then jam a product into that space and then absorb all of the market share. Look at what they did at travel search. They went and they bought a critical component of travel search, this company ITA, that had all of the data on where the flights are coming and going and how much they cost and so forth that all of the major players relied on. And they did a little, “Oh yeah, we’re definitely not going to use it for nefarious purposes.” And now if you do a travel search or airline search, all of a sudden, instead of seeing all the major players for airline search, you’re getting a Google box, which doesn’t necessarily cover all the best flights, all the best prices — there’s been some studies on that. I think that’s a real problem.
Why were they allowed to do that? That was a moment where regulators could have said, “Whoa, okay. You already have a monopoly in web search. We’re going to stop this.” And in fact, there have been lots of times in American history where regulators cared about this stuff, where they didn’t allow this to happen. I think Obama’s a great guy. He’s a very nice guy. He’s a very cool guy. But on antitrust, the White House was very aligned with Google. And if you look at who spent the most time at the White House, it’s by a mile Google lobbyists.
And to go on another rant, why has Google evaded a lot of scrutiny on this issue? I think it’s because Eric Schmidt’s a freaking super genius on this topic because he went through it. He was the Jeremy Stoppelman of the Microsoft era. He was at Novell. He saw it from my shoes. He learned the playbook. He solved the mistakes that Microsoft made. And so then Google, as it got into a monopoly position, he was extremely strategic and laid all the groundwork to make sure that Google was going to be protected for as long as possible. And it’s worked remarkably well.
In 2011, when I testified, I was like shaking in my boots. Eric Schmidt testified as well. And Chuck Schumer came out and all he said on the topic — even though Google at that point already had a monopoly, it was like 70 percent or so web share, mobile was looking a lot worse — he just came out and said, “Oh, good. Eric, it’s so great to have you here. Thank you for putting an office in my district.” And then he left the meeting.
CN: Well, have you thought about putting an office in his district?
I do have an office in his district!