Google appears to be near a settlement with European Union regulators over alleged anti-competitive practices there. A broad outline of the proposed remedy for this activity is beginning to emerge, and it’s fairly remarkable. The remedy has two parts. First, all Google services that appear in search results would appear in a separate box and be labeled as sponsored content. Even more remarkably, Google would be required to show search results for up to three of its competitors whenever it displays a result containing one of its own services.
Now before you get too excited, remember this settlement only applies to Europe. Don’t expect to see it in the United States anytime soon, if ever.
The core issues underlying this settlement are intriguing. Can a search engine be accused of anti-competitive behavior for favoring its own services in search results? The publisher in me says “yes,” because Google is rolling out more and more content, and it has a massive, unfair advantage over any publisher it competes with.
Google would probably respond to this by saying its dominance in search comes from providing really good search results, and that’s what will ultimately constrain its behavior. If Google gets too cute with users by pushing its own products too aggressively, users will desert it for another search engine. I buy this argument to some extent, but it also downplays the power of user habituation, and Google’s unique ability to promote its own products inside seemingly organic search results.
I know more than a few publishers who have woken up in the morning to find their traffic - and by extension their businesses - had dried up because Google had tweaked its search algorithms. I know why Google did this, and agree they should have the right to do this. But it leaves a trail of wreckage in its wake. And Google’s seemingly accelerating push into the content business seems likely to have the same effect.
The bottom line is that Google has evolved over the years, and consequently publishers need to evolve in their thinking towards Google. The term “frenemy” was coined to summarize our confusion about how we should best interact with Google. The emerging reality seems to be that while Google can still bring benefit to all of us, it’s a mistake for any of us to depend on Google for our business. That’s a big statement to make, but from both a strategic and operational perspective, Google is an unstable platform.