The U.S. government’s antitrust lawsuit against Google goes to trial in September in what could be one of the biggest antitrust trials of the century.
The government’s case claims Google has gained a monopoly in internet search, not by building a better mousetrap but by pushing competitors to the sidelines. Government attorneys no doubt will ask how Google’s dominant position has helped serve consumers, answering their own question by suggesting it hasn’t.
Does Google no longer deserve to be your go-to?
The case coincides with arguments by critics and many consumers that Google's search results have gotten less helpful to consumers in recent years, even as it still dominates the search field.
Dominic Chorafakis, P.Eng, CISSP and principal at Akouto, a technology firm, believes some of the dissatisfaction with the search engine stems from how Google monetizes its business, putting paid placement in the mix with non-paid search results.
“From a usability perspective, it can be argued that results have gotten worse over time since Google put ads in line with search results and made them look very similar to non-paid search results,” he said.
In addition, said Chorafakis, internet content as a whole has gotten worse, driving down the quality of search results. “There's a whole industry that has sprung up around search engine optimization which employs a number of tricks to try and get Google and other search engines to rank the importance of a page to be higher than it might be in reality,” Chorafakis said.
And consumer use of smartphones could explain some of the perception that Google has gotten worse, suggests Joe Karasin, CMO & founder at Karasin PPC. He says consumers used to be more direct and exact with their search queries, but in recent years, typing on their phones, they have come to rely more on the algorithm to figure things out.
“They don't want to type in long-tail queries, which is often the way to get the best search result possible,” he said.
“For example, if I need to hire a lawyer, I will usually type in 'best criminal defense attorney near me' and I will get pretty relevant results. If I just type 'best lawyer' my results won't be as relevant. The latter is how most consumers search these days due to the cumbersome nature of typing on their phones rather than a keyboard.”
Google earned its advantage initially
Experts we spoke to were quick to credit Google’s ascension to dominance to the company’s technology.
“Google figured out how to do two things very well – return accurate search results via a more advanced algorithm than their competitors and monetize the search engine business model," said Karasin, who has worked in the search engine marketing field for the past 12 years and has watched Google's ascent. “Between these two innovations, Google was able to become the top search engine for consumers.”
Chorafaki believes Google won by focusing on building its own platform rather than relying on off-the-shelf technology.
“Solving fundamental problems with processing large amounts of data allowed Google to scale faster and more cost-effectively than their competitors,” Chorafakis told us.
“The second factor was the advantage of Google's algorithms over those of their competitors for ranking the importance of web pages. This allowed Google to produce much more relevant search results than their competitors which quickly made them the search engine of choice.”
How well are users served?
The case will flesh out two complex, interrelated questions: Has Google violated antitrust laws by competing unfairly, and has Google simply grown too large for other competitors to enter or survive in the space?
The U.S. Justice Department complaint alleges that Google monopolizes key digital advertising technologies, collectively referred to as the “ad tech stack,” that website publishers depend on to sell ads and that advertisers rely on to buy ads and reach potential customers.
The complaint also alleges that over the past 15 years, Google has engaged in anticompetitive and exclusionary conduct that consisted of neutralizing or eliminating ad tech competitors through acquisitions.
It also accuses the company of wielding its dominance across digital advertising markets to force more publishers and advertisers to use its products and make it harder to use competing products. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco says ad tech businesses have been harmed financially. Consumers, she says, have been harmed by the lack of competition in search.
Nothing may happen very quickly. The trial is likely to be lengthy and if the court rules against Google, the tech giant can be expected to appeal. But should the government ultimately prevail, what might the result look like?
Karasin thinks Google may have to allow other search engines to be used as the default on Android devices, similar to what Microsoft had to do with Internet Explorer at the turn of the century.
Chorafakis says the outcome is difficult to predict but agrees the court could force Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to divest some of its assets related to search. For instance, Google’s YouTube is also considered a search engine. The government could argue it should have separate ownership.
“More likely scenarios would be requiring Alphabet to provide competitors with access to APIs (automated programming interface) that allow them to integrate their services and offer compelling alternatives, impose price regulations to allow smaller rivals to compete, or prohibit Alphabet from tying or bundling one service with the other,” he said.
For consumers, the result could be a return to the late 1990s when there was no dominant search engine. Consumers of a certain age may remember when Yahoo was a major player in search, along with smaller players such as Lycos and Excite.