Updated 10:40 a.m. PDT with Google's response.
Competition regulators in Italy have opened an inquiry into Google News at the behest of publishers who allege they were banned from search results unless they agreed to be part of Google News.
According to reports, Google's offices in Italy were searched Thursday by regulators seeking evidence that Google forced Italian news sites to make their copy available through Google News unless they were willing to be excluded from search result pages. A complaint was filed by an Italian newspaper organization, FIEG, which also decried the lack of information made available to publishers as to how Google News organizes links to stories.
Google Italy representatives were quoted in several places as saying "The Competition Authority has notified us of a claim against Google Italy. We're finding out more details today, although we do know that it's in relation to Google News, which drives significant traffic and new readers to newspaper Web sites."
Later in the day, Google posted a blog item on the inquiry, acknowledging the existence of the claim but spending most of the post explaining how publishers can remove themselves from Google News, but not search results, at their request.
Google News is definitely a sore spot for many publishing companies, who feel Google's news aggregation site siphons readers from their own Web sites. Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, appeared before Congress in May to defend Google against such charges, saying that Google directs an awful lot of traffic--which can be turned into ad revenue--to newspaper Web sites for free.
But allegations that Google is messing with search results pages in retaliation for a business decision are very serious. Google's search results are supposed to be completely automated--driven by algorithms and keywords--and a large part of the company's growth has been driven by the public belief that its search results are gospel.
The New York Times reported that Google had denied the charges regarding the search results. Google's blog post Thursday did not specifically address that allegation but said there is a mechanism for removing one's content from Google News yet leaving it among search results.
The inquiry also comes at a point in Google's history where just about everything it does gets examined through an antitrust lens, with a new administration in the U.S. taking a closer look at several parts of its business.