The decision by the FTC not to pursue the case against Google is disappointing, albeit not unexpected. The long and short of the story seems to be that Google successfully convinced the FTC that although they are a monopoly, their actions and policies are not actually hurting consumers. As a result, Google will be allowed to continue operating, largely the way they have always acted in the past. This decision, I believe, is a consequence of a fundamental misreading of the way Google affects consumers.
Google has always argued that they are not a “real monopoly” and that they have no hold on their customers– the searchers– since anyone can choose to use another search engine, at any time. However, that is a fundamental misreading of who Google’s true customers really are. Google’s real customers are not the consumers who search for information on the web through Google, but rather all of the various sites the Google engine finds (as well as the sites that cannot be found through Google’s search) who must buy advertising from Google in order to be found. These companies and organizations are Google’s true consumers. These costumers cannot go anywhere else.
Never in the history of business has one company had such a tremendous effect on other businesses. Today, a business can grow or be crushed by good search returns. If you rank well in search returns, then your web site will have a great deal of traffic. However, if your site is not ranked well, then your traffic and sales will plummet. If you want to keep your customers coming to your web site you have to buy search advertising from that very same company – Google – and search advertising may not be cheap. Several years ago, before we sold online store (historyshopping.com), we were spending at least 10% of our income on Google ads.
No one has claimed (and I certainly do not believe) that Google changes its search results in order to force people to take out ads. However, it’s the very nature of how Google implements their searches and makes changes to their algorithms that has introduced a level of uncertainty in the rapidly changing outputs of search results. These uncertainties make it essential for companies to spend money on search advertising. Before Google went live, there were large web indexes, usually created manually by humans. In the past, if you wanted to find something on the web, you would look it up in a static index. That was fine in the early years, when there were not that many sites on the web. Google brought about a revolution to the ever-expanding web, with the introduction of its automated search engine. I personally cannot complain. At first, our web sites benefited from very good search rankings in the Google search engine. We never spent any effort to appear well in Google searches. From the beginning, we always had so much content that were consistently ranked well.
The problem with the Google approach to searches, (and as a result to business) is the fact that every so often Google decides to change its search algorithm. Those changes some seemingly intelligent, (and some unfathomable), inject a level of uncertainty into a business. This makes it very difficult to plan and grow. It usually forces businesses to turn to the other side of Google – Google Advertising.
The reasoning behind some of Google’s search decisions seem totally unfathomable. Why one page of our Historycentral.com website is extremely highly rated by Google, while other pages (which IMHO have better content) do not appear at all on the first pages of the Google search remains a mystery.
Even more problematic (from a monopoly standpoint) are two recent actions by Google: 1) The decision to tie searches to Google +. Google + is Google’s attempt to compete with Facebook to search results. If you want to have a good search result for your company, then you better be an active participant in Google + – whether you want to or do not. 2) Google has started including basic info in their search results. If you search for a person, instead of going to a web site (e.g. like ours), you can get the basic information directly from Google’s web site – without ever leaving Google. Is that bad for the consumer that is looking for business? I guess not, if you are fine with Google providing you with all of you information. However, what are the options open to a business who has spent years laboring to build an audience – and now Google – since it controls 80% of the web search traffic cuts out that web site from their search results?
Google succeeded in convincing the US government that since consumers were not hurt by their monopoly it should continue on unregulated. If you accept the old traditional definition of who customers are, then Google may be right. However, in our new world, (which to some extent Google created) Google has been able to convince the US government to ignore the central reasons a company needs to be regulated. As a monopoly they can do irreparable harm to other business – and now nothing, at least in the US, stands in their way.
I believe that Google truly does not mean to do harm. Unfortunately, there are many businesses that suffer from the collateral damage that result from decisions they continue to make.