A Florida restaurant group is suing Google, alleging that the tech company has been setting up unauthorized pages to capture food orders rather than directing them to the restaurant’s own site.
Google uses supposed “bait-and-switch” tactics to get customers to place takeout or pickup orders through “new, unauthorized, and deceptively branded webpages,” charges the lawsuit, filed on March 8 on behalf of Left Field Holdings, the restaurant company that runs Lime Fresh Mexican Grill franchises.
“Google never bothered to obtain permission,” lawsuit alleges
On Google’s generated sites, customers are prompted to order with food delivery companies, such as DoorDash and GrubHub, but “Google never bothered to obtain permission from the restaurants to sell their products online,” the lawsuit says. “Google purposefully designed its websites to appear to the user to be offered, sponsored, and approved by the restaurant, when they are not — a tactic, no doubt, employed by Google to increase orders and clicks.”
Google disputed “the mischaracterizations of our product” and said it would be defending itself against the lawsuit, spokesperson José Castañeda told Ars Technica.
“Our goal is to connect customers with restaurants they want to order food from and make it easier for them to do it through the ‘Order Online’ button,” said Castañeda in a statement. “We provide tools for merchants to indicate whether they support online orders or prefer a specific provider, including their own ordering website. We do not receive any compensation for orders or integrations with this feature.”
Google acquisition at center of lawsuit
The “Order Online” button appears to be the result of a Google acquisition.
Known as “The Ordering App,” the site was originally marketed toward restaurants and set up to take a percentage of sales, but Google waived it “to help support restaurants affected during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the product’s Salesforce page says. “The Ordering app is an online ordering platform, powered by Google, and designed specifically for restaurants to help customers order more seamlessly from the Google Business Profile.”
It’s not clear when The Ordering App or the “Order Online” button changed back — or if it ever did — but the lawsuit alleges that at some point Google decided to market it to food delivery companies instead of restaurants. Before the “Order Online” button appeared, Google search result pages for restaurants looked like many others do — a list of organic results accompanied by text ads. Then, in 2019, Google started rolling out the new button, which appears prominently in what the company calls the Business Profile, a collection of information about a business that appears alongside search results.
When users click the “Order Online” button, they’re directed to a page that in many cases contains large links to food delivery companies. The restaurant’s own site gets a link as well, but it’s a small, generic “website” button. And, in some cases, Google provides an interface for assembling an order, complete with prices and descriptions of the menu items.
Companies that have completed the “Order Online” setup with Google can also direct customers to their own online ordering services, but since many restaurants’ ordering sites are run by third parties, a lot of those links may not contain a restaurant’s name.
If restaurants haven’t completed the setup, Google appears to create a page anyway.
“Google’s ‘Order Online’ button leads to an unauthorized online storefront — one owned and controlled by Google — wherein consumers can place orders for the restaurant’s products, all under the restaurant’s tradename,” the lawsuit says. “Google prominently features the restaurant’s tradename at the top of the page, above the restaurant’s address and menu, to give the user the distinct impression that the storefront and products are authorized and sponsored by the restaurant, when they are not.”
Food delivery app fees
If the restaurant has a relationship with the food delivery company, it gets charged a fee. The fees a restaurant pays can be so high — 15 to 30 percent, in many cases — that the restaurant has no hope of making a profit from the order. “A restaurant’s motivation to partner with a Delivery Provider is almost never to make a profit on orders received from the Delivery Provider,” the lawsuit says. “Rather, a restaurant’s usual goal is to capture new customers that may later place orders with the restaurant outside of the Delivery Providers’ expensive platforms.”
The way Google’s “Order Online” feature is currently designed limits restaurants’ chances of taking orders directly, the lawsuit says.
And, given the number of restaurants in the US, the lawyers representing Left Field Holdings are seeking a class action suit, saying they believe there are “tens of thousands” of potential plaintiffs. “Since launching its unauthorized Storefront, Google has hijacked millions of customers and orders.”