Google is changing how its Android search engine choice screen works in Europe, following complaints from rivals about its pay-to-play model, the company has announced in a blog post. The selection screen appears for users when they first set up an Android device, and is designed to offer a choice of search engines after Google was hit by a record $5 billion antitrust fine in 2018. From September, the search giant is making it free for search engines to be included, and is increasing the number of services that’ll be shown on the selection screen.
Currently, the selection screen includes a choice of just four search providers. One is Google, and the other three are chosen through a sealed-bid auction process. Search providers each “state the price that they are willing to pay each time a user selects them from the choice screen” and Google then selects the three highest bidders over a minimum bid threshold, and displays them in a random order on the screen.
After the changes, which will apply to all devices sold in the European Economic Area and the UK, Google will display up to 12 providers on its search selection screen, and none will have to pay to be included. The first five will be the most popular search engines in a given country, as determined by the web analytics service StatCounter, displayed in a random order. Below these, Google will show up to seven more providers in a random order. If there are ever more than seven other providers to choose from, then Google says it’ll randomly display a selection of seven whenever the choice screen in shown.
Although providers won’t have to pay to be included, Google has detailed a number of eligibility requirements here. Providers must offer a “general search service,” which means results can’t be limited to a single topic, they need to offer a free app on Google Play, and they need to be correctly localized in a country to be visible on its selection screen.
Responding to the news, DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg cautiously welcomed the changes, but criticized Google for not having made them three years ago. He said they should also apply to more devices and in all countries, and that the selection screen should not be limited to the first time a user sets up or factory resets an Android device. In its FAQ Google confirmed that users will only see the choice screen once per device, during setup. Last year, Weinberg criticized the auction process, and called it “fundamentally flawed.”
But in comments given to Bloomberg, EU officials welcomed the “positive” move that addressed complaints from rivals. “Users will have even more opportunities to choose an alternative,” the European Commission said.