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After a year-long investigation into Google’s dominance in search and online advertising, the Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company this past week. The most recent of its kind against a major technology company, the suit is another example of the federal government’s increased attempts to flex regulatory power over big tech.
For those of us who have been paying attention, the lawsuit isn’t a surprise. As a search engine optimizer, my job is to beat search engines, and Google is our behemoth. No modern business can survive without showing up in Google, so specialists in my industry anticipate every algorithm update, scour Google’s webmaster guidelines, and experiment with thousands of keyword searches to understand what makes Google tick.
But in addition to all I’ve learned about search algorithms over the past decade, I’ve also had a front-row seat to Google’s transformation from a democratic landscape that rewards relevance and quality into a pay-for-play machine that increasingly rewards, well, Google.
The impact of Google’s dominance in search has been mostly felt by advertisers. Over time, Google has quietly increased the number of paid ads that appear above organic results, increasing competition between advertisers and making it more difficult for brands investing in SEO to earn site traffic without paying. These competitive market dynamics continue to drive up the cos per click. With Google owning 90% of the search engine market share, advertisers with smaller budgets have few viable alternatives. Many companies run unprofitable ad campaigns just to dominate their industry.
For the rest of us on the internet, the harm of the search engine market’s anti-competitiveness is far more subtle. On the surface, Google is the opposite of monopolistic — it is a free platform that provides thousands of web pages for users. But Google had to figure out a way to monetize all those free searches. Over the years, it has made enough changes to dominate the search market. It has also become a competitor with every single publisher on the internet.
Chances are, you have already visited Google at least once today. Say you searched for flights or hotels: Google prioritized its own flights and hotel engines in the results it provided you. Maybe you asked Google a question. If Google showed you a featured snippet with the answer, you never had to leave its platform. As a result, the publisher that created that content didn’t get rewarded with traffic or the opportunity to show you an advertisement.
These are called “zero click” searches. With virtual assistants, they are increasing every year. Now, more than half of Google searches end without a click. Although Google penalizes websites for content scraping (i.e. lifting material from other pages), a featured snippet qualifies as such. Google’s webspam team once challenged Twitter users to find proof of scraped content that ranked higher than the original source. SEOs were quick to respond. Their best example? Google.
Google’s monopolistic reach is strengthened by the fact that it doesn’t have to pay publishers when it shows their content in featured snippets. Also, Google Adsense, the ad exchange used by most online publishers, takes 32-49% of revenue. Over the past decade, Adsense has eliminated competitive pressure through exclusivity clauses, arbitrary criteria for “invalid clicks,” and by refusing to pay publishers revenue. These questionable practices led to an $11 million class action settlement in 2018 and a $1.49 billion fine by the European Commission last year.
Many see this week’s lawsuit as long overdue. Others have argued that even if the Department of Justice is successful, breaking up Google is not the right answer. But the DOJ’s complaint asks for “structural relief” to restore competitive conditions. Although vague, it leaves open many possibilities for regulating a platform that has become the gatekeeper of the internet and all online advertising
As an SEO, I know there are steps Google could take right now to be less monopolistic. It could reduce the number of paid ads that appear above organic content. It could divest key services like YouTube and Gmail, which reduce competition in search. It could also eliminate cost-per-click inflation by lowering bidding thresholds between advertisers. Lastly, it could open up a free API that allows developers to build on top of its search engine without having to actually go to Google.com to do it.
If Google implemented these changes, nothing would really change for its users. But competitors like Apple who want to build their own search engines would certainly benefit. Publishers would be rewarded for their content by getting the opportunity to monetize their site traffic through advertisements. Ultimately, it would probably be good for advertisers too. More platforms competing for advertisers means fairer pricing, more transparency, and a push for quality traffic and improved performance.
In their original paper, The Anatomy of a Search Engine, Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote that, “The most important measure of a search engine is the quality of its search results.” As an SEO who tries to do things the right way, I appreciate all of the hard work of Google’s developers who are constantly doing the statistical analysis to understand how to provide better, more relevant results to their users. Google’s north star towards higher-quality content has made it easier for its search engine to trust newer sites, to weed out scammers, and to provide opportunities for innovative companies to break into crowded markets — essentially, to give the little guys a chance.
So does Google deserve to be as dominant as it is? Probably. It could just learn how to share a little more. Google has been a source of democratization in every industry except its own. If this lawsuit results in improved transparency about how search, Adwords, Adsense, Youtube, and Gmail monetize and leverage each other, it would be a major win for advertisers, publishers, and regulators.
But it will not be easy for Justice Department attorneys. Google is very good at what it does. In addition to owning the entire ecosystem of digital assets surrounding search, it has deep expertise in AI and cutting-edge technology in computing and DevOps. The sliver of competition that still exists in the search market, as well as the growing computing power of Amazon, are predicted to be key points in the defense. We should all assume that, as one of the wealthiest, most innovative companies in the world, Google will come prepared to win.
Manick Bhan is the founder and CTO of LinkGraph, a full-service SEO and digital marketing agency. Follow him at @madmanick.
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