Google got hit with a lawsuit last week by a Web publisher that alleges it has suffered significant financial harm because its site got dropped from the search engine's index.
KinderStart.com, which operates a Web site for parents of children under 7 years old, filed its lawsuit as a class action in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division.
KinderStart.com, based in Norwalk, California, charges Google, among other things, with violating its right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution; violating section 2 of the Sherman Act by using a monopoly position to harm competitors; engaging in unfair practices and competition under California law; and committing defamation and libel.
The Web publisher is asking the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action nationwide with a subclass in California and award unspecified damages to affected businesses. It also wants the court to declare Google in violation of the plaintiffs' right to free speech and impose "suitable" injunctive relief for them.
If KinderStart.com prevails, the lawsuit could have significant repercussions on the way Google decides to remove Web sites from its index, an action that can seriously hurt a business' sales and marketing operations due to Google's enormous influence on Web traffic as the world's most used search engine.
Google reserves the right to remove Web sites from its index for various reasons. For example, in its webmaster guidelines for making a Web site easy for Google's search spider to crawl and index, the company lists practices Google considers deceptive that can get a site banned.
But KinderStart.com states it hasn't knowingly violated any of Google's webmaster guidelines. It seeks class action status for the lawsuit because it believes a significant number of Web publishers have been affected in a similar way.
KinderStart.com launched its Web site in May 2000 and at its peak generated more than 10 million page views per month, according to the complaint. In 2003, the company also enrolled in Google's AdSense program, carrying ads distributed by Google and getting a commission whenever its visitors clicked on them.
Starting in March and April 2005, the Web site suffered a "cataclysmic" fall in traffic of about 70 percent and a drop in AdSense revenue of about 80 percent, from which it hasn't recovered, and which the company blames on its removal from the Google index.
Prior to March 2005, Google was the top referring site for the KinderStart.com site, and today it accounts for less than 0.01 percent of referrals. KinderStart.com claims it has never been notified by phone, mail or in person of the reason for its Web site's exclusion.
In a statement, Google called the lawsuit meritless and said it will defend itself vigorously.
Google's practice of banning sites from its index gained attention in February when the company announced it had decided to remove the German Web site of car maker BMW for allegedly trying to deceive the Google search robot to gain higher placement. Days later Google reincorporated the site to its index, saying BMW had undone the offending changes, although BMW strongly objected to Google's characterization of its practices as misleading.