Commentary

Google Breakup Bid Is More About EU Politics Than Marketing

On the face of it, it looks like a good idea. Well, at least it looks like a good idea to a politician or two in Brussels. Google is way too big, we all know. It needs its immense power of the Internet curtailed. There probably aren't too many people who would disagree, or at least lend the suggestion an attentive ear.

Trouble is, what does it actually mean? How would you go about curtailing Google's power? Namely, how would you prevent YouTube and Google shopping results from being prominently displayed to give everyone a fair crack of the whip?

My rhetorical reply would be, do you actually need to? Or let me rephrase that. Do you need to as much as you thought you did just a couple of years ago -- and again, how exactly would you do so?

A couple of years ago, video appeared to have been dialled up in Google's algorithm. I'm only talking from personal surfing experience and a few interviews on the topic at the time, but people generally appear to have been convinced that Google was giving more prominence to video in results. I actually chaired a panel where the topic came up -- and it was generally considered to have been a deliberate act to make video, and hence YouTube, more prominent in results. 

There definitely seems to have been a change, however. Whereas just a couple of years ago a video result would appear in or around the third organic spot, today that still happens but it would appear only when there is an obvious reason to put a video there -- for a pop song, or a tutorial or a news items, for example.

So the influence is still there -- it just appears to have been toned down.

As for Google Shopping, it's basically an advertising slot that a wide range of ecommerce brands can choose whether to advertising within or not. It's effectively paid-for search, or PPC, dressed up to look more pictorial and so more likely to attract a click.

That's what Google does. It's no secret that the top results are the paid-for ones. They are clearly labelled and brands can bid to be in the spot or not -- it's up to them. It's not as if Google is selling cars or black dresses itself. It merely provides the shop window that retailers can choose whether or not they want to be seen in. Click on the shopping tab and that window is expanded to the whole page.

So Google surely holds an awful amount of power with roughly nine in ten UK searches going through its algorithm. The question is whether it satisfies itself with simply monetising that traffic through paid search -- or does it use that power to give its own brands a leg up to the top of organic results?

Many will say they have the answer, but they don't. Nobody knows for sure whether Google shares the golden key to getting a top three organic spot with its own companies -- or even worse, if it holds back spots exclusively for its own interests (which I seriously doubt). The search panel I hosted a year or so ago concluded on an interesting point, though. Google bought YouTube, which was already very popular and was already ranking higher than competitors for natural search results. So it makes sense that after the purchase, YouTube should still be outperforming rivals because it is far and away the most visited video site on the Web. 

If you were to apply the logic that Google abuses its power and needs to be split up, you would have to assume, based on my Christmas shopping list, that it also owns Amazon, John Lewis, Currys and countless other high street names that are constantly making it into the top three or four on my natural search results. Truth is, of course, it doesn't. These stores have a lot of traffic and they have a lot of people linking to them and a lot of bloggers writing about them. Put simply, they have put a lot of research and budget into what gets you a top listing, and they're using it to their advantage.

Let's not forget that anyone in to SEO can take a course on getting good positions. They can receive regular updates that hint at what Google's latest thinking is. They can also join the countless forums where tips are exchanged. 

So while the actual algorithm may remain a constantly changing secret, the general principles are well known. If you don't cheat the system and have lots of people talking about you, linking to you and visiting you, then you'll do better than somebody who does not. 

The power Google very clearly has, and is not up for question, is that (just under) nine in ten UK Web searches go through it. That is why so much budget goes into establishing how to harness that power without having to pay Google as well, and the flip side of the coin, why so much budget goes into buying a clearly labelled paid-for spot at the top of the page. 

Until you have proven beyond doubt that Google has abused this power, I don't see how you can call for it to be broken up. I also can't quite see what impact that would make, because whether they share an address or not, YouTube is going to know a thing or two about ranking highly within Google. Stores will continue to pay to be listed on its shopping platform as well as its PPC top page slots. 

It sounds like a typical politician's idea to me. Something you'd nod along with right up until you question whether it needs to be done -- and even whether it could be done.

1 comment about "Google Breakup Bid Is More About EU Politics Than Marketing".
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  1. Kevin Pike from Rank Fuse Interactive, November 24, 2014 at 4:55 p.m.

    The EU likes their government and political interference right up to the point when that authority actually put handcuffs on things and creates censorship. #FulfillingTheStereotype

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