Google Search Results – What Is Their Obligation to the Public?

There were some documents leaked from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently that seem to indicate that Google admitted to favoring its own properties in results. Search Engine Land has the full write up, so I won’t rehash all of the details here.

I am very critical of Google, a lot. They do things that drive business owners and paid search professionals absolutely nuts, a lot. But I find this question to be really interesting – just exactly what are Google’s obligations to searchers? Why shouldn’t they be able to provide better visibility for their own products?

Google is not a public utility or even an internet service provider. They are not granted special access by the government to public internet channels. They are a search engine, a product that people freely choose to utilize with many other options equally available to them. They are a for profit, publicly traded company that is in the business of making its shareholders money. Is placing their own stuff on the first page of search results that much different from TV networks heavily promoting their own programming in premium slots like the Super Bowl or NCAA Tournament? Or Amazon or Netflix promoting their original content above and before that of other producers?

My question is really, why wouldn’t they want to put more and more of their own products/links into their results? As long as searchers are happy with the experience and get the information they need, why shouldn’t Google drive traffic back to its own properties? Why do we expect them not to? They are not a library. They are not a government run directory or search service. They are not a charitable organization. They are a public company that provides a service to individuals. They already “decide” what links show up in their results – it’s called their algorithm. Why no similar outrage over their Answer Boxes or encroachment into actual services, like flight or insurance quote comparisons?

The main outcry seems to complain about Google’s “monopoly status” in search. I am, of course, not a lawyer. However, by definition, a monopoly does have dominant marketshare, but there is a second critical element required to actually constitute a true monopoly – lack of access to other options. In this regard, how can we call Google a monopoly? Web searchers are but a single click away from searching some place else. Google is not disabling a person’s ability to search on Bing or Yahoo or anywhere else for that matter. They have just built their brand, name recognition and ubiquity to the point where most people “google” things when they search. No one is making them use Google for search. An example of an actual monopoly would be how cable companies conspire to have literally only one choice available in a particular zip code. That is a monopoly – if you want service X your only option is to buy it from company Y. This is not Google’s market position.

And, Yahoo followed this model for years with their portal structure. So did AOL. No one was trying to sue them for antitrust or complaining about how unfair it was. Know what happened to Yahoo & AOL? People didn’t like that format, so they lost marketshare to Google when they burst onto the scene. The same thing will happen to Google if they start producing results that USERS don’t like. They will start searching elsewhere, it is how business works. In the meantime, all of this pearl clutching about Google wanting to promote their own product listings and such feels a bit over the top. Should we force TV networks to show promos for competing networks? Should Yelp have to also show results from Urban Spoon or Angie’s List within their results? C’mon.

This is business people. It’s not Google’s job to give any particular business first page search positions. I’ll repeat this again – it is their job to meet earnings expectations and make money for their shareholders. You want to show up in Google for shopping searches? Guess what, the free ride is over and you’ll have to pony up and pay to be listed in their Shopping section. My question is really, what took them so long to make this so? Facebook has done the same thing to businesses – want to be seen in our network? Then pay to promote your posts or advertise, because free reach via posts ain’t happening any more. It’s their sandbox, they can make the rules for it.

We have the power to force change if we really want it too. And it’s incredibly easy – if you don’t like what Google is doing, stop using it for your searches. As their revenue drops, their practices will have to change.

Does this behavior have some serious negative implications for businesses? Yes, yes it does. As a search marketer who works daily to help my clients get their message out to people who might be interested in buying what they are selling, this is troublesome. Google has huge amounts of resources, so when they decide they want to get into the insurance business, insurance companies should rightfully be scared. But, this is how business works. To survive and thrive in today’s economy, you have to figure out how to carve out your niche and then defend it from others. Some are successful in this endeavor, many are not. It is the very nature of our (mostly) free market economy.

Let’s remember this – Google’s job is not to provide exposure for other businesses on the web. Google’s job is to make money by providing a search experience that individual people value and utilize and therefore advertisers want to spend money in. The sooner we all accept this, the sooner we can get on about the business of creating business and marketing plans that are not so heavily reliant on Google that when they do things like this, businesses are devastated. They are not going to make decisions based on anything except what is good for their bottom line. Which is exactly what they should do.

What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter!


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