Google may be looking to beef up its internal legal ranks this spring as the Federal Trade Commission makes moves that signal a coming antitrust lawsuit.

The Federal Trade Commission hired an outside attorney to help it deem whether to file antitrust charges against the search-engine giant. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that the FTC hired Beth Wilkinson, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

Wilkinson is a heavy hitter. Prior to private practice, she was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York. In 1995, she was a counsel to the Deputy Attorney General, the principal deputy of the Terrorism and Violent Crime Section. After prosecuting the Oklahoma City bombing case against Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, she became the only two-time recipient of the Department of Justice's highest award.

FTC May Sue Google

Although the FTC has not filed any charges against Google, Wilkinson's involvement is notable. The FTC has only turned to outside attorneys twice in the past 10 years. The last time was when the government hired David Boies to work on the Microsoft antitrust suit. Wilkinson has a strong track record. She has brought more than three dozen cases to trial and won them all.

We asked Greg Sterling, a former attorney and principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, his thoughts on the FTC hiring Wilkinson at this stage in the investigation. He told us, "While this move doesn't guarantee the U.S. will bring an antitrust case against Google, it does suggest that possibility is now very real."

Google could not immediately be reached for comment. According to comScore, Google owns about 66 percent of the U.S. search market. That compares with Microsoft Bing's 15 percent and Yahoo's 14 percent. But competitors beyond search engines are complaining to the FTC.

"We believe Google has acted anti-competitively in at least two key ways: by misusing Yelp review content in their competing Places product and by favoring their own competing Places product in search results," Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said, according to remarks he prepared for testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in September.

Google on the Radar Screen

The same Senate subcommittee grilled Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who defended the search-engine giant's practices in the face of charges that it favors its own products in search results. Nextag and Expedia were among those joining Yelp in blasting Google for alleged anti-competitive moves.

The FTC actually began probing Google's competitive business Relevant Products/Services practices in June 2011. Google has still not been accused of any wrongdoing, and at the time Google Fellow Amit Singhal observed that it was not exactly clear what the FTC's concerns were.

Beyond competition, the FTC has had its eye on Google for years. In March 2011 Google agreed to settle FTC charges that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own consumer privacy promises when it launched its Buzz social network in 2010. The regulatory agency said Google's practices violated federal trade laws.

Google's settlement barred the company from future privacy misrepresentations, required it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and called for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. The Google deal marked the first time an FTC order has required a company to implement such a program.