Tuesday, April 23

Google Search Boss Says Company Invests to Avoid Becoming ‘Roadkill’

The Justice Department has spent weeks arguing in a federal antitrust trial that Google has built an impenetrable barrier around its search business with strong-arm tactics and multibillion-dollar deals.

But a Google executive said on Thursday that he didn’t see it that way. He sees a world of threats that could humble his company at any moment.

Google presented a starkly different picture of how it has built and maintained the internet’s most dominant business as it began its defense in the landmark trial. The key, said Prabhakar Raghavan, Google’s senior vice president overseeing search and other products, has been constant investment and innovation.

Dr. Raghavan described Google’s path from its once-unimaginable rise over his former employer Yahoo to fears that its business could be disrupted by formidable competitors.

“I feel a keen sense not to become the next roadkill,” Dr. Raghavan said. “If we become second class, we become irrelevant over time.”

Dr. Raghavan said focusing on search missed the internet’s competitive landscape. He said numerous companies without search engines compete with Google, including TikTok, Expedia and Booking. “A bunch” of companies are cause for concern, he said, but “Amazon is one of the two most keep-awake companies.” The solution to staying ahead, he added, was relentless increases in research and development spending.

The depiction of Google as a company just trying to stay ahead of the pack from Dr. Raghavan and Michael S. Sommer, a lawyer representing Google who questioned him, sharply contrasted with the argument made by the Justice Department and 38 states and territories. For the last seven weeks, they have maintained that Google crushed competition by paying Apple, Samsung and other partners billions of dollars annually to keep its search engine the default on their web browsers.

The government has said that Google’s massive scale makes it impossible for other search engines to compete for contracts and users, and gives the company commanding power over online ads, allowing it to raise ad prices at will.

Google has said that its search engine is popular because of its quality and that users can easily change their default to another service such as Microsoft Bing or DuckDuckGo.

“As I constantly remind my team, nobody wakes up every morning and says I have to run a Google query,” Dr. Raghavan said. Instead, he said, they go to the best service for their particular needs.

Dr. Raghavan, 63, has spent more than 11 years at Google, with stints running its applications and ads operations. In 2020, he assumed control of the company’s search engine and related businesses, including Google Maps and Assistant as well as commerce products. He had previously devoted much of his career to research, leading Yahoo Labs and working at IBM Research for 14 years.

Dr. Raghavan said that Google’s success was not set in stone, and that it faced many challenges in trying to retain its users, especially among younger people. Dr. Raghavan cited research that found that Americans spend about 23 minutes a day surfing the web, versus almost four hours using applications. And he highlighted TikTok’s youth appeal, as well as user research that found that “where young people go, older people follow.”

To drive the point home, Dr. Raghavan said he was “unfortunately” aware of a derogatory nickname for his employer among young people: “Grandpa Google knows the answers and will help you with homework, but when it comes to interesting things, they like to start elsewhere,” he said.

Joshua Hafenbrack, a lawyer for the Justice Department, sought to undercut Dr. Raghavan’s insistence that Google was under threat from Amazon, during a cross-examination. He referred to a 2019 competitive analysis conducted by Google that found the company had not seen an impact on its search or shopping revenue among members of loyalty programs like Amazon Prime. These types of loyalty members tend to do more searches on Google, not less, he said.

“Research is something that users do a lot of at Google,” Dr. Raghavan said.

Mr. Hafenbrack suggested that Google was more interested in keeping users and making money than offering new features that might be popular.

Google once considered building a so-called incognito version of its search engine that collected no data on users. Mr. Hafenbrack asked if Google never moved forward with the project because it would be popular with users and cost the company billions in revenue.

“That was only one of the concerns, yes,” Dr. Raghavan said, adding that the company was also concerned that it would have been using the term “incognito” inconsistently across multiple products.